Divorce

Is There Such a Thing as a Christian Prenuptial Agreement?

PrenuptialAbout six weeks ago, I was contacted by Patricia Hartman asking me to read and review her book The Christian Prenuptial Agreement. She had read an earlier post in which I had disagreed with Dave Ramsey’s premise for prenuptial agreements. She sent me a copy of the book, challenging me to read it and change my mind on the issue. As part of the agreement for receiving the free book, I agreed to write a post about the book—positive or negative. So here it is. As you will see below, the author has offered some interesting ideas, but her book has not swayed my opinion that prenuptial agreements are unbiblical.

Hartman approaches the task of writing her book from a very practical standpoint. She is a forensic CPA aiding clients who are going through divorce. Also having experienced “losses when [her] ex-husband had left [her] years earlier” (7), it is clear that she wants her readers to avoid the struggles and pain that she and her clients have experienced. There is no doubt in my mind that Hartman wants to protect marriage, but it appears that her personal experience is driving her conclusions.

The author places a great deal of importance upon the prenuptial agreement. She notes:

Your Christian prenup may be the very document that holds your marriage together when life gets tough. (8)

Your prenup has the ability to release an amazing power and energy into your marriage. (35)

Your prenup gives you the opportunity to thwart Satan’s attempts to derail your marriage and is your greatest insurance policy against his attacks. (58)

Unfortunately, I believe this trust in the prenuptial agreement is misplaced. She has elevated the prenuptial agreement to the place of a covenant and fails to distinguish the practical effects of what she calls a “Christian” prenuptial agreement from the effects of a secular one.

A Biblical Mandate?

Is the prenuptial agreement a biblical mandate? Hartman states:

Based upon God’s revelations in Scripture, Christians have a duty to write a prenuptial agreement to acknowledge their vows and covenants that follow God’s laws and precepts, rejecting the counter-Christian laws and culture as a witness to the glory of God. We have a duty to right the wrongs that exist or may be imposed by the government. Further, God recorded His covenants as a witness to His commitment and love for us in His Word. In the same way, we have a duty to record our covenant agreements as a witness to our commitment and our commitment and our love for one another. (25)

Building on the idea that talk is cheap and most couples do not understand the implications of their verbal vows (235–236), Hartman argues that couples ought to have a prenuptial agreement that includes their vows. In addition, she claims that God’s covenants are written and we should follow suit with marriage.

By contrast, most of the covenants recorded by Moses, God’s “first official scribe” (23), were verbal covenants in force for generations before Moses ever wrote the Pentateuch. The first explicit covenant in Scripture—God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:1–17—was a verbal covenant that was binding hundreds of years before Moses ever recorded the words. In fact, most covenants were not written in the Old Testament until long after they were established. To apply the standards of the OT covenants to marriage today, one need only express the covenant verbally, and it is binding. Sure, there are advantages to recording one’s vows, but there is no biblical mandate to have a legal document drafted by separate attorneys and signed before a covenant is biblically established.

A Lack of Trust

Hartman correctly notes that trust is a major issue for prenuptial agreements. She writes, “One of the most common objections to prenups is that they imply a lack of trust. That is indeed true for a secular prenup, but if we truly grasp the depravity of man, should we trust our fiancé?” (45). She goes on to explain that our sinfulness makes it difficult for someone to trust us. Since God is the only one we can trust fully, she believes that a prenuptial agreement reminds us that God is the only one we trust.

The problem with this perspective is that the prenuptial agreement effectively places trust in the legal process in case of problems. It does not point to trust in God but trust in the courts. When surveying the sample Christian prenuptial agreement in the book, the vast majority of it describes remedies for the court in case of separation or divorce. This does not put trust in God’s provisions; instead, it trusts the court and the prenuptial agreement to make provision for the parties in case of marriage failure.

The sample prenuptial agreement is actually the most intriguing part of the book for the issue of trust. Besides a testimony section, vows, and some references to Scripture, most of it looks much like a secular prenuptial agreement. It spends three pages addressing provisions for divorce, another page on separation, and significant portions on how much each spouse is going to work, how finances will be handled, and how to divide the estate upon death.

The section on divorce opens by saying, “The parties agree not to use violation of the terms of this agreement as a basis for filing divorce” (264); however, it immediately proceeds to discuss the grounds on which divorce can be filed and how the process will play out. Despite a critique of the lack of trust in secular prenuptial agreements, the Christian version offers little more in the way of trust.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

The final area of critique for the Christian prenuptial agreement presented by Hartman is an overwhelming focus on details. There are a host of issues that most engaged and newly married couples do not yet grasp about marriage. Pre-marital counseling can certainly help them see some of these issues in advance; however, Hartman’s book provides a list of details to be discussed (and many included in the prenuptial agreement) that could be overwhelming to a couple. Included in the prenuptial agreement are decisions about how much each spouse will work, investment goals, how to educate children, and the sale of property owned before marriage. In addition to some of these details in the prenuptial agreement, the author directs engaged couples to make decisions on issues such as how to use vacation time, how often to have sexual intercourse, whether to give children allowances, and what types of food to keep in the house. These are details that often come up over time in a marriage, but are not of the utmost importance to a successful marriage. Many of the decisions related to these issues could change a number of times just in the first few years of marriage.

With such a focus on the minutiae, I fear that Hartman has lost the larger picture of marriage. The covenant of marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. When we first come to faith in Christ, we do not have a full picture of all the details. As we grow in our faith, we recognize the sacrifice of this covenant relationship and how it impacts every aspect of our lives.

Helpful Hints

Up to this point, my discussion of the book has been rather critical; however, I want to close with a few positive points about the work. First, there are a number of questions and exercises in the book that are beneficial for pre-martial counseling. In addition to some standard discussions of faith, finances, and in-laws, I found her suggestion to discuss medical history quite helpful. Most young couples do not even think about family medical history, but a tragedy could make such information very useful to a spouse.

Second, I appreciate Hartman’s desire to end the cycle of divorce. While I do not agree that a Christian prenuptial agreement is the solution, I can appreciate her heart for seeing marriages thrive.

Third, her discussion of God’s desires for married couples in chapter 6 was encouraging. Apart from just a couple minor disagreements, I believe she clearly articulated the biblical expectations for men and women in marriage. She is to be commended for her focus on these theological matters.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I stand where I have stood for years on the issue of prenuptial agreements—they do not accurately depict the biblical vision of marriage. When a man and woman come together in marriage, they reflect the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church. In giving himself for the church, Christ gave up everything. The church then submits herself to Christ. This is the model of marriage found in Ephesians 5:22–33. As Christians we are called to depict this relationship in our marriages. Even as sinners, we are called to holiness. Our faith in Christ is enough to unleash the power of marriage. No legal document is necessary to protect God’s design for marriage.

I close with this admonition for those who may face difficulties in marriage and wonder what to do.

If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)

Christ had everything to lose entering into a “marriage” with the church. He knew we would be unfaithful, but “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” When all hope seems lost, trust in the fact that Christ remains faithful—that is the motivation you need to unleash the power of marriage.

Are Interfaith Marriages Wise?

wedding ringsA recent editorial in The New York Times made the case that interfaith marriages are a mixed blessing. On one hand, such marriages often lead to less satisfaction in marriage, higher divorce rates, and diminished commitment to faith traditions. On the other hand, the author claims that these marriages promote religious tolerance.

Before addressing the biblical evidence regarding interfaith marriage, let’s look at some of the facts. According to a 2010 survey, interfaith marriages have increased from 20% of married couples prior to 1960 to 45% of married couples in 2010. These marriages include what many historically consider interfaith (Jew and Gentile, Christian and Non-Christian, Muslim and Non-Muslim, etc.) and more contemporary versions of interfaith partnerships, including Catholic and Protestant, Mainline Protestant and Evangelical, and religious and non-religious.

The likelihood of interfaith marriage also increases with age. Among those who married before the age of 25, 48% were interfaith. The occurrence of interfaith marriage increases to 58% for those between 26 and 35, and it further increases to 67% for those 36–45.

The survey, commissioned by Naomi Schaefer Riley for her book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America, made a quite disturbing find. She discovered that “less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said they’d discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in. Almost four in five respondents (in both same-faith and interfaith marriages) thought having ‘the same values’ was more important than having the same religion in making a marriage work.”

Even Riley, who supports interfaith marriage, believes this idea to be unrealistic. She states, “I found that interfaith couples were less satisfied than same-faith couples by a statistically significant margin—and that the more religiously active spouse (as measured by attendance at religious services) tended to be the unhappier one.”

After all the negative consequences of interfaith marriage, Riley concludes her article by stating:

So while I recognize that the diminishment of religious institutions and a rise in marital instability could be among the long-term effects of interfaith marriages, I cannot wish for the tide to ebb. Nor do I think it will.

What should we make of this biblically? Despite Riley’s conclusion that interfaith marriage promotes religious tolerance, Scripture gives clear instructions regarding this practice. The Old Testament addresses “mixed marriages” on a number of occasions for the nation of Israel (Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7; Joshua 23). In each of these cases, God warns the Israelites against intermarrying with the other nations because they will turn their hearts away from worshiping God. In the New Testament, Paul twice instructs his readers to marry “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7: 39) and to avoid being “bound together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14–15). The same thought process holds in Paul’s instructions as well—marrying a non-Christian will likely lead to diminished devotion for God.

The prevalence of interfaith marriages, however, is growing. Even among evangelicals, the trend of interfaith partnerships is increasing. Interestingly, Riley notes that evangelicals and black Protestants reported the highest levels of dissatisfaction in these types of marriages. In fact, divorce rates sky-rocketed for evangelicals. Riley notes, “While roughly a third of all evangelicals’ marriages end in divorce, that figure climbs to nearly half for marriages between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. It is especially high (61 percent) for evangelicals married to someone with no religion.”

Why do evangelicals rarely say anything about interfaith marriages? Why do pastors perform such marriages? I believe the answer lies in what Riley says about herself. She is shaped by her own experience. Despite the fact that she describes all the problems associated with interfaith marriages, she declares:

I am no impartial observer. I’m a Conservative Jew married to a former Jehovah’s Witness, who is African-American. (We are raising our children Jewish.) Our country’s history of assimilation and tolerance is one reason I, a grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, can live as I do. It is why I could marry the man I wanted to, without fear of ostracism.

So while I recognize that the diminishment of religious institutions and a rise in marital instability could be among the long-term effects of interfaith marriages, I cannot wish for the tide to ebb. Nor do I think it will.

Her own experience is driving her conclusion. She cannot wish for the tide of interfaith marriage to ebb because it would say that her own marriage is fraught with potential problems. I fear we say the same thing in our churches. To declare interfaith marriages unwise or unbiblical might disturb those sitting in the pew or even some in our families.

On this issue, Scripture contradicts her experience. When given the choice, she (and many evangelicals) chose experience. I pray, however, we stick with Scripture and not experience.

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Naomi Schaefer Riley, “Interfaith Unions: A Mixed Blessing,” The New York Times, April 5, 2013.

Prenuptial Agreements: Disagreeing with Dave Ramsey

I love listening to Dave Ramsey on the radio. I have implemented much of what he teaches in my family’s finances. I don’t always agree with everything Dave has to say, but rarely is my disagreement so ardent.

I was listening to Dave several days ago, and a gentleman called in to ask about a marriage question as it relates to finances. He was about to get married, but many people had told him he needed a prenuptial agreement. The caller seemed hesitant to do it so he asked Dave’s advice. Dave asked the necessary questions to estimate his caller’s net worth, and it came to $1.5 million. Even though it was slightly under Dave’s threshold of $2 million, Dave advised him to get a prenuptial agreement in place before the wedding. His rationale? Crazy people are attracted to money. Dave assured the caller that his future bride is probably not crazy, but she probably had someone crazy in her family (don’t we all?) who might try to take his money if the relationship went south.

On Dave’s website, he clarifies his stance on prenuptial agreements with the following response to a listener:

There is a bad spirit over prenups. It’s planning your divorce in advance. What you put your eyes on is what you end up getting.

There is one exception to this rule. If your fiancée is an heiress and was wealthy already, I would change my answer. If I die and my wife remarries, I have told her to get a prenuptial agreement. When there is extreme wealth, more than a couple million dollars, weirdness is attracted to that. When I’m dealing with a professional athlete making millions of dollars a year, I recommend a prenuptial agreement.

In the specific conversation (in print on his website), Dave suggests that wealth can bring a host of problems to the marriage that need to be addressed in pre-marital counseling. He says:

Because of the wealth, you have a higher potential to attract weirdness. I think you’ve got a valid concern. I also think you need to do a lot of premarital counseling and discussion about money because you have an extra strain on your marriage. You don’t—as a man—want to put money on a bigger pedestal than your wife. You want to love her well before you love money well. Having said that, you have this extra responsibility and strain on your relationship. You really need to dig into that in your premarital counseling and talk that through because it’s a potential stumbling block for you later on.

So Dave is generally against prenuptials for the right reasons—they basically admit you are not committed to the relationship already and want to divide up the spoils before the divorce ever comes. They just don’t communicate the spirit of marriage—two becoming one. Dave even regularly recommends pre-marital counseling with a pastor for engaged couples. However, Dave changes his advice about prenuptials on the basis of wealth before marriage. Why is it fine if you’re already worth $2 million or more? His only rationale is that money attracts weird people.

While I respect Dave’s opinion, I believe he is being inconsistent on this point. Marriage is marriage no matter how much money is involved. Yes, wealth can bring extra strain to the relationship, as can poverty. Those marrying into money can be perceived as (and sometimes are) gold-diggers. However, marriage is the union of a man and a woman as one in all aspects of their lives. Otherwise, it is just a contract with the terms for the dissolution of the contract drawn up before things begin. Marriage is more than signing a cell phone contract for two years with a $250 penalty for switching providers early.

Should the church have anything to say about prenuptial agreements? Certainly! As pastors perform pre-marital counseling and teach about marriage from the pulpit, I believe they should describe how prenuptial agreements detract from the God-ordained picture of marriage. They take away from the idea of two becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24).

In addition, prenuptials are directly antithetical to the picture of marriage as the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:22–33). If there were anyone who deserved a prenuptial agreement, it is Christ in his relationship with the church. His surpassing riches of grace (Eph 2:7) far exceed the paltry contribution that we bring to this divine marriage. Our wealth is like filth by comparison. However, Christ gives all of himself to his bride knowing that she will at times be a little weird and perhaps even unfaithful. Thankfully, we can be assured that: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim 2:13).

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Dave Ramsey, “Dave’s Thoughts On Prenuptial Agreements,” daveramsey.com.

Dave Ramsey, “This Case Calls For A Prenup,” daveramsey.com.

Expiration Dates on Marriage Licenses

ABC News reported that Mexico City lawmakers are proposing legislation that would allow couples to set an “expiration date” for their marriage licenses. Rather than making a commitment for life, the new marriage licenses would allow newlyweds to determine if they want to commit to simply two years and evaluate any extensions after that.

Leonoel Luna, the official who authored the proposed legislation stated:

The proposal is, when the two-year period is up, if the relationship is not stable or harmonious, the contract simply ends. You wouldn’t have to go through the torturous process of divorce.

In Luna’ defense, he recognizes that the process of divorce is long, difficult, and painful. There is plenty of collateral damage that comes from divorce, and I believe he is probably being sincere in his desire to prevent such pain. However, he has a completely wrong understanding of marriage. Rather than viewing marriage as a covenant, he sees marriage as a contract.

This current proposal sounds much like a sports contract. Right now we are in the throes of the World Series, and last night’s game had plenty of commentary about where different players had played. In fact, one player started the season for the Rangers but is now on the roster of the Cardinals. When a player signs a contract, he has terms for pay and length of contract. If things don’t work out, the team can simply refuse to re-sign the player. The contract ends, and both parties move on.

Marriage is not supposed to be that way. Throughout Scripture we see that marriage is described as a covenant through explicit statements (Prov 2:16–17; Mal 2:14) and comparisons to the covenant between God and his people and Christ and the church (Isa 54:4–8; Jer 3:14; Hosea 1:1–3:5; Eph 5:22–33; Rev 21:9). The covenantal model of marriage depicts marriage as a creation ordinance given to all people that creates a permanent bond between a man, woman, and God. Covenants cannot be broken arbitrarily at the whim of the parties involved.

The contractual model of marriage espoused by this legislator makes marriage nothing more than a legal transaction between two individuals for mutual benefit. In a contract, once one person no longer receives the agreed upon benefit, the contract can be broken. The reason this model does not work in marriage is because it bases the security of marriage on the ability of sinners not to sin. Theoretically, a “partner” in the contract would have an escape clause once he/she is wronged. In marriage, that probably happens weekly—if not daily.

Some people may respond with the thought. “This is just the world acting like the world.” Unfortunately, many people in our churches have the same understanding of marriage. They consider marriage to be a contract ruled by the civil laws of the day. Once they feel wronged, they begin looking for a way out. This is evidenced by Barna’s research that the rate of divorce among self-identified born-again individuals is the same as that of American society at large.

The solution to the divorce problem in our culture is not temporary marriage licenses. Instead, the solution is seeing marriage the way God sees it—permanent, covenantal, and sanctifying. Unfortunately, many both in the church and outside are not convinced. Therefore, we need to start by proclaiming God’s design from marriage in our churches. Once we start to look different from the world, then we may earn a hearing in our culture.

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Christina Ng, “Mexico City Considers Temporary Marriage Licenses,” ABC News, September 30, 2011.

The Barna Group, “New Marriage and Divorce Statistics Released,” March 31, 2008.

Divorce in the Bible Belt

Data from the 2010 Census has been flowing steadily for the last few months. Much of it has been the typical stuff—total population, redistricting issues resulting from population shifts, etc. Some of it is encouraging, but some not so much. CNN.com ran a story on a report released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau about marriage and divorce statistics, and the numbers are ugly. Here are a few snippets:

While the Bible Belt is known for its devotion to traditional values, Southerners don’t do so well on one key family value: They are more likely to get divorced than people living in the Northeast.

Southern men and women had higher rates of divorce in 2009 than their counterparts in other parts of the country: 10.2 per 1,000 for men and 11.1 per 1,000 for women, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

By comparison, men and women in the Northeast had the lowest rates of divorce, 7.2 and 7.5 per 1,000, which is also lower than the national divorce rate of 9.2 for men and 9.7 for women.

For those of us who call the Bible Belt home and think all things Southern are superior (food, culture, people—can I get an “Amen”?!), these statistics probably seem shocking. In fact, I did not believe them, so I set out to disprove them. Unfortunately, they seem to be fairly accurate.

Of course, statistics can say what the researcher (or reporter) wants them to say, and there are a couple of key factors buried in these statistics that are glossed over in the article. First, Southerners marry at a much higher rate than those in the Northeast. When you have more people marrying, then you have more opportunity for divorce. Second, the South is not the overtly religious region it used to be. Places like Texas, Florida, and Tennessee have become the homes of transplants from other parts of the country that often do not share the “steeped-in-religiosity” tradition of the South. These people have come for the weather, jobs, or tax benefits, but they are not Southerners by birth (or as the bumper sticker reads: “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God!”). In fact, native-born Southerners often no longer hold the values their parents or grandparents did.

The other difficult part of reading these statistics as gospel truth is that they merely report a snapshot in time. They give the total number of divorces that occurred in 2009 per every 1,000 adults (age 15 and older) in the population at that time. What is not told in the initial numbers is how long those marriages lasted before divorce and the prospects of durability for new marriages in 2009 and forward. If you dig deeper into the Census Bureau report (and not reported in the news article), you see that the duration of current marriages for women in their first marriages is much higher across the South and Midwest than in the Northeast. Therefore, Southerners stay married longer despite the fact that they divorce at a higher rate.

So what does this say about the Bible Belt? First, I believe it demonstrates religion is oftentimes more of a cultural expectation than a personal conviction. While Southerners claim to be religious, it does not always translate into how they live their lives—especially their marriages. Second, we see that marriage is in a precarious state everywhere—not just the “liberal” Northeast and West Coast. While marriage is more of a social norm in the South, it does not make it any easier to have a good marriage that lasts. Finally, the churches in the Bible Belt must not rest on their laurels of cultural significance to influence marriage. Instead, the churches need to fight to protect the marriages of the people in their congregations. Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:22–33). How can we clearly communicate the love Christ has for the church if our marriages are falling apart?

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Katia Hetter, “What’s Fueling Bible Belt divorces,” CNN.com, August 25, 2011.

Diana B. Elliott and Tavia Simmons, “Marital Events of Americans: 2009,” United States Census Bureau, August 2011.

Image credit.