Pretty Simple, Really

Joy Pullman, in the October 3, 2015 issue of WORLD, wrote a brief article entitled “A real head start.” In the article she addressed the fact that preschool and the federal Head Start program are not all that effective in equipping children for academic success. In fact, she quoted a study which found that watching Sesame Street was just as beneficial as Head Start on a child’s academic success. As much as you have to admire the long-running success of Big Bird and his buddies there is no way to justify the $8 billion annual price tag for Head Start if that is really all the difference it makes.

Pullman also referenced the efforts underway by the group Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), which is running ads in New Hampshire and Iowa in an effort to get presidential candidates to lend their support to the creation of government programs for children from birth to age 4. The organizations web site says that its purpose is “to mobilize all Americans in a commitment that cannot wait–investing in early childhood now.” If you follow the link to the “Secure Early Education” page you will read this:

Save the Children Action Network knows that investing in early childhood education is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty. These investments lay the foundation for success in school, career and life. The type of environment and the quality of interaction to which children are exposed in the first five years of life greatly influence the outcomes of their adult lives.

Education may very well be one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty but it certainly is not the most effective way. And educating children in preschools and government programs for the first four years of their lives is not the answer. The Save the Children Action Network page lists the following under the headline “The Problem”: “From 2010 to 2012, more than 4 million 3-and 4-year-olds were not attending preschool, representing more than half (54%) of all children in that age group.” I have no reason to think those numbers are not accurate but I have every reason to believe that is not the problem. Nor is the goal of “high-quality early childhood education” the solution. The solution, according to the Save the Children Action Network is this: “A comprehensive, national early childhood education program would add $2 trillion to the annual GDP within a generation, according to the Brookings Institution. Evidence-based, high-quality early childhood education programs not only prepare children for school but also empower parents to influence their child’s academic success.”

It is interesting to me that the web site includes this nod to parents, since the effort to create a national early childhood education program is really an effort to take children away from their parents at an even earlier age in order to submit them to the influence of the state. It is not difficult to imagine how long it would take before such a program would become mandatory once it was created. Of course an incredibly important part of the problem–which SCAN and other organizations do not want to acknowledge–is the breakdown of the family. Even before the legalization of homosexual marriage we had an epidemic of broken families in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children born out of wedlock in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which I can find numbers, was nearly 1.6 million, meaning that 40.6% of all births in the U.S. were to unmarried women. According to the ChildTrends Data Bank, only 64% of children in the U.S. lived with two married parents. (Notice that does not say those were necessarily the child’s biological parents, so this figure includes adoptions as well as blended families). This is huge because, also according to ChildTrends, “Single-parent families tend to have much lower incomes than do two-parent families, while cohabiting families fall in-between.” The site also states the following:

Both mothers and fathers play important roles in the growth and development of children. The number and the type of parents (e.g., biological, step) in the household, as well as the relationship between the parents, are consistently linked to a child’s well-being. (Nationally representative data on adoptive families are relatively new, and warrant a separate treatment.)

Among young children, for example, those living with no biological parents, or in single-parent households, are less likely than children with two biological parents to exhibit behavioral self-control, and more likely to be exposed to high levels of aggravated parenting, than are children living with two biological parents. Children living with two married adults (biological or adoptive parents) have, in general, better health, greater access to health care, and fewer emotional or behavioral problems than children living in other types of families.

Among children in two-parent families, those living with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage tend to do better on a host of outcomes than those living in step-parent families. Outcomes for children in step-parent families are in many cases similar to those for children growing up in single-parent families. Children whose parents are divorced also have lower academic performance, social achievement, and psychological adjustment than children with married parents.

Given this data, combined with that shared above about the effectiveness of Sesame Street equaling that of Head Start, it would seem that SCAN would be advocating for marriage-based two-parent families rather than more government early-education initiatives. I suspect we will not see SCAN take that route, though, or many other organizations or politicians since that would mean having to address the self-centered focus so prevalent in our culture, having to address the overthrow of traditional marriage and gender roles, the abandonment of commitment in marriage, saving sex for marriage and just about everything else that has been thrown out with the embrace of the attitude so prevalent in our nation today. When the focus is on what works for me right now the focus is solely on self; children are considered very little, if at all.

Pullman’s article highlights another very interesting finding by researchers: what is “most effective for tots’ long-term success is having a married biological mother and father. Other legs up include the number of books in a child’s home and eating meals together as a family.” It seems to me it’s pretty simple, really. Forget Head Start (and Sesame Street). If we want to give children a better chance to succeed, if we want to grow the annual GDP, and if we want to strengthen our nation, what we need to do is get back to the basics–the basic family unit. Father, mother, children. Marriage between a man and a woman. Marriage commitments, not no-fault divorces. Parents who actually read to and with their children, families that sit down at the table and eat together at least once a day–without the television on and without cell phones in everyone’s hands. That sounds like a real commitment that cannot wait. Let’s mobilize Americans to pursue that goal!

Scientific evidence

Business Insider recently posted an article by Emily Esfahani Smith that originally appeared in The Atlantic. The article was entitled, “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits.” Interestingly, the two basic traits the article highlighted were kindness and generosity. “There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. … [A]mong couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.”

It is always fascinating to me how science continues to affirm what the Bible teaches. Scripture makes it clear that we are to be kind to each other and to consider others above ourselves. Ephesians 4:32 says “Be kind to one another” (ESV) and Philippians 2:3 says, “be humble and consider others more important than yourselves” (CEV). Those passages are referring to how believers are to behave generally–they are not specific to marriage. If, however, God has called us to that kind of behavior with anyone, how much more so must He expect it of spouses?

The article quotes Ty Tashiro, psychologist and author of The Science of Happily Ever After, as reporting that only three in every ten people who get married “remain in healthy, happy marriages.” As a result of the high divorce rate and the concerns about the impact that these divorces would have on children, psychologists began to study couples in an effort to “determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were.” John Gottman is one of those psychologists, and he has been studying couples for four decades. For a 1990 study he designed a lab at the University of Washington that resembles a bed and breakfast and set about inviting couples to spend the day at his lab so he could observe them. During that time, Gottman made what Smith calls “a critical discovery.”

His discovery was that as they interacted throughout the day the couples Gottman was observing would make what he calls “bids,” which are invitations for the spouse to engage. How the recipient of the bid responds goes a long way in determining how healthy the relationship will be. The example bid in the article is, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” Obviously no relationship is going to thrive or fail on the basis of a mutual interest in bird watching, or lack thereof. The reason the response to the bids is so important is that the response is really to the one offering the bid, not the actual subject of the bid. In other words, if my wife were to say something about a beautiful bird outside (an entirely plausible scenario, in my case), my response–good or bad–is really to my wife. The bird itself is tangential. Responding favorably, either by getting up to look at the bird or, at a minimum, asking her to tell me about it, indicates that what matters to her matters to me–which really indicates that she matters to me.

Gottman found that those couples who had divorced when he conducted a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” one one-third of the time, whereas the couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87% of the time! In other words, nearly nine times out of ten, the recipient of the bid had affirmed his or her spouse through the response to the bid. No wonder these couples were still together.

Smith’s article goes on to explore further what kindness is. Interestingly, she observes that there are two ways of looking at kindness: as a fixed trait or as a muscle. If you view kindness as a fixes trait, your position is that you (or anyone) either have kindness or you do not, and that’s just the way it is. If you view it as a muscle, however, you recognize that while some people may naturally have more of it than others, it is a trait that can be developed in and by anyone, and the more it is exercised the stronger it will become. Of those who see kindness as a muscle, Smith comments, “They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.” The article further examines the fact that kindness includes generosity–the generosity of actual gifts, sure, but more importantly a generosity towards your spouse’s intentions. Do I give my wife the benefit of the doubt, do I seek to understand her perspective or the circumstances surrounding whatever it is that happened–or do I simply get upset when things do not go the way I wanted them to go?

Smith also touches on the fact that while “being there” for your spouse when circumstances are difficult and when trials come, just as important, if not more so, is the reaction when your spouse shares good news. “How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.” The article highlights four possible types of response, called passive destructive, passive constructive, active destructive and active constructive. The best response, of course, is the active constructive one, because it focuses attention on the spouse delivering the good news, celebrates the news and takes a genuine and active interest in it.

I could go on at length in examining biblical passages that are supported by all of this scientific evidence, but I suspect you are familiar with most of it anyway. Once again, science provides support–evidence, if you will–for exactly what God has said all along.


The subject of divorce is one that causes much disagreement in church-world. Some–like me–were raised believing that divorce is always wrong. Others believe that divorce is not only not wrong, but is sometimes even better than staying together. Our culture certainly has no problem with divorce. But my own study of this subject, sparked primarily by teaching through Matthew in a Sunday school class five years ago, has led me to a clarified understanding of biblical teaching on divorce.

Lest there be any doubt, let’s be clear: God hates divorce, as is made clear in Malachi 2:16.

Despite that, there are reasons for which divorce is allowable by God, even if not preferable or desired. It is important to keep this truth in mind when we hear of individuals who are or have been divorced.

In Matthew 19:1-6 the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “on any grounds” (HSB) or “for any reason” (NKJV).

There were two separate groups among the Pharisees, the Hillelites (followers of Rabbi Hillel) and the Shammaites (followers of Rabbi Shammai). The Hillelites took a pragmatic approach and a loose interpretation of Moses’ writing to allow a man to divorce his wife for any reason (or even without reason).

Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to a man divorcing his wife because he has found some “uncleanness” in her (KJV and NKJV). This is also translated “some indecency” (ESV and NASB) and “something indecent” (NIV). In the original Hebrew it read “a cause of immorality,” or, more literally, “a thing of nakedness.”

The Hillelites seized on “cause” or “thing” and took it to mean that divorce was permitted for “a cause”—which could be anything that displeased the husband. Their reasoning was that Moses would have simply said “immorality,” not “a cause of immorality” if immorality were the only reason for which divorce was permitted. Accordingly, the Hillelites granted “any cause” divorces.

The Shammaites believed that Moses’ instruction in Deuteronomy allowed divorce for adultery only.

The point of the Pharisees’ question was to test Jesus, or trick Him. His answer should be understood to say that no, divorce is not allowed for just “any cause,” not that there is not any cause for which divorce is permitted. In short, Jesus was publicly stating that the Hillelites were wrong.

Some biblical scholars, most notably David Instone Brewer, hold that Exodus 21:10-11 states that there are three rights within any marriage, the rights of food, clothing and love (which we now commonly refer to in marriage vows as “love, honor and keep”).

According to Brewer Jesus did not mention in Matthew—nor did Paul mention in his writings—that these were causes for divorce because they did not need to, it was clearly stated on the marriage certificate. This would also include abuse, which is extreme neglect and a failure to love and honor.

Brewer also states that at the end of all Jewish and most Roman divorce certificates it said “you are now free to marry anyone you wish,” meaning, obviously, that remarriage was permissible and would not be considered adultery.

Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 that believers may not abandon their spouses, but if an unbelieving spouse abandons a believer then it is okay for the believer to remarry.

Furthermore, divorce and remarriage are both permissible if one partner breaks the marriage vows. While many Bible scholars hold that divorce and remarriage is only permitted by God in cases of adultery or the departure of an unbelieving spouse, abuse and neglect are likely also valid reasons for divorce and remarriage is permitted in those cases as well.

It should also be noted that any divorce prior to an individual accepting Christ is forgiven at the time of salvation, even if the divorce was for “any reason” (i.e., not a biblically permissible reason) and cannot be held against an individual even in consideration of holding a position of church leadership. The previous divorce is forgiven and forgotten just as are any and all other sins.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question reinforces the Old Testament teaching that marriage is an all-encompassing act of unity that should not be separated by man. Marriage should never be treated irreverently or as unimportant and disposable. However, due to sin nature and the choices of individuals, marriages do sometimes dissolve.

Furthermore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:9 that anyone who divorces except for reasons of immorality and remarries is committing adultery is strong language used to underscore the fact that marriage must not be taken lightly. Due to the “any cause” divorces of the first century divorce was easier and more common is Jesus’ day than it is even today. Furthermore, since only the husband could initiate or file for divorce, women were left extremely vulnerable in the society. Anyone who entered into marriages repeatedly and irreverently made a mockery out of what God designed as a holy institution. The result was tantamount to adultery.

Jesus was likely using strong words in this passage to emphasize the importance of marriage as God intended it. I do not believe, however, that anyone who has been divorced for biblically acceptable reasons is living in adultery by remarrying. Even an individual who has divorced for wrong reasons can repent of the choices that they made and be forgiven.

The disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching about the sanctity of marriage and how seriously such a commitment should be taken by stating that if that was how marriage was supposed to be it would be better just to not get married at all (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responded to that by saying that not everyone can accept that, meaning that not everyone can accept being single. Some were born unable to engage in sexual activity, some were made that way by man (i.e., the forced castration of eunuchs), and others who choose to remain single “because of the kingdom of heaven,” meaning that sometimes being single is a part of God’s plan for an individual’s life.

For additional insight, see also David Instone Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (InterVarsity Press) and “What God Has Joined,” Christianity Today, October 2007, pp. 26-29.