Christians seeking ways to strengthen and improve their marriages aren’t suffering a shortage of advice. Much of it is good, even excellent. But how often are married believers told that the foundation of every successful marriage is an ordinary Christian life—perhaps not ordinary in terms of how many professing Christians practice such a life, but certainly ordinary as Scripture describes and God requires?
Yet social science makes it abundantly clear that when married people embrace basic, plain, elementary biblical practices, this behavior powerfully and positively affects their marriages. Allow me to illustrate this by highlighting a handful of the most important aspects of the ordinary Christian life that affect marriage.
Ordinary Christians are committed members of a local church they attend regularly, encouraging and being encouraged by fellow believers. Yet the General Social Survey (GSS) for 2008 through 2018 shows that less than half of self-identified evangelicals say they attend church about weekly or more. Even that dismal statistic is a high estimate given that many survey respondents overstate their church attendance.
By skipping church, people are missing out on something that can make their marriages better and stronger. This set of GSS surveys show that first marriages among evangelicals who attend church only several times a year or less are about 20 percent more likely to end in divorce or legal separation than for those who attend church about weekly or more. These surveys also show that married evangelicals who attend church weekly are about 9 percent more likely (than those who attend several times a year or less) to call their marriages “very happy” (66 percent versus 57 percent).
Lukewarm Christianity is a disaster for family life.
Interestingly, in that survey for 2008 through 2018, first marriages among evangelicals who only attended religious services several times a year or less were about 14 percent more likely to have ended in divorce or legal separation than those among religious “liberals” or “moderates” who rarely sat in the pews. These statistics echo Jesus’s famous indictment of the Laodicean church for being “neither cold nor hot” (Rev. 3:15–16). In a 2014 interview with Christianity Today, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox remarked directly on this text, noting the poor marriage stats for professing believers inconsistent in their church commitments: “Lukewarm Christianity is a disaster for family life. . . . Nominal conservative Protestants and evangelicals do worse in their marriages than other Americans.”
This finding shouldn’t surprise us. Churches—especially those that are biblically sound—provide valuable social support, moral instruction, and accountability. Church attendance is consistently associated with lower levels of a range of sexual behaviors that undermine marriage, such as viewing pornography, promiscuous premarital sex, and cohabitation, as well as reducing substance abuse. And regular church attendance is a mark of basic Christian faithfulness (Heb. 10:24–25).
Forgiveness, Kindness, and Compassion
The ordinary Christian life is also marked by kindness, compassion, and generosity, including regularly practicing forgiveness (Prov. 11:24–25; Mat. 18:21–22; Mark 11:25; Col. 3:13). These are integrally related, but they’re often hard to practice in the grind of daily living. Like all other aspects of the Christian life, we grow in them by grace. Yet forgiveness, kindness, and compassion ought to characterize relationships between believers, especially those joined by the covenant of marriage. They flourish in the lives of those who comprehend the depth of their sin and the mercy they receive from Christ and need regularly from others as well. Every married person must apply Ephesians 4:32 in their marriage: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
The National Marriage Project bundled survey items that measured these things, under the label “marital generosity.” They found that married couples whose relationships are more strongly characterized by practically caring for and forgiving each other have higher levels of marital satisfaction and stability, less conflict, and even more sexual fulfillment.
Who knew that everyday rituals like warming up your spouse’s coffee or car, listening to them describe their day, washing the dishes or folding the laundry without being asked, paying little sincere compliments, and so on could have such a powerful effect on one’s marriage?
Finally, ordinary Christians take the promises and pledges they make to God and others seriously (Num. 30:2; Prov. 12:22). They understand that abandoning or neglecting those to whom they’re bound by marriage or other close familial ties is especially abhorrent (Mal. 2:14–15; Mark 7:10–13; 1 Tim. 5:8). This means holding a strong core belief that, during the hard times, they will work hard to improve and maintain covenant bonds, not withdraw from or forsake them. This fits into what marriage scholars often simply call “marital commitment.”
In The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher highlight the positive effect this commitment has on marriage, including greater levels of sexual satisfaction. The GSS asked respondents in 2002 and 2012 to indicate if they agreed that “divorce is usually the best solution to marital problems.” This is a rough measurement of how much they believe that they should seriously consider divorce if their marriage runs into difficulties—how “thinkable” divorce is. Those who agreed with this statement were 8 percent less likely to call their marriage “very happy” than those who disagreed with it (60 percent versus 68 percent). This supports the idea that higher levels of commitment to marriage are associated with a greater likelihood of being happy in it.
Without commitment, couples won’t make it through the hard times and do everything they can, in the Lord, to make their marriage the best it can be. It is the platform of marital happiness.
Committed couples count on and support one another. They’re willing to make sacrifices for their partners and will seek to protect their marriage from anything or anyone that would destroy it. They regard their spouse as more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3) and remember that the welfare of their partner is their highest priority. In The Meaning of Marriage Tim and Kathy Keller note, “Marriage won’t work unless you put your marriage and your spouse first, and you don’t turn good things, like parents, children, career, and hobbies, into pseudo-spouses.”
Marital commitment places marriage on a firmer foundation than do pursuing positive feelings or self-fulfillment. Yet ironically, this dedication leads to greater marital joy and satisfaction in the long run. Any worthwhile endeavor requires sacrifice and dedication. Why would we expect marriage to be any different?
Without commitment, couples won’t make it through the hard times and do everything they can, in the Lord, to make their marriage the best it can be. Commitment is the platform of marital happiness.
Marriages Built on Paradox
Every extraordinary Christian marriage is built on the everyday actions and attitudes that ought to characterize the life of every believer, even though we’re imperfect sinners making gradual progress in holiness. Great marriages belong to married believers leading lives marked by humility as they rely on and remain committed to their spouses, children, and fellow believers. These are husbands and wives who have gratefully received God’s grace and therefore seek to live it out in their lives together.
Their marriages reflect the great mystery of the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:31–32), but there is nothing mysterious about what makes their lives together so exceptional. It’s all right there in Bible paradox. Wealth flows from generosity, liberation from service, exaltation from humility, fruitful lives from dying to self.