- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2001

The Southern Baptist Convention wrapped up its annual assembly yesterday with a challenge to its engaged and married couples to reduce divorce rates and set an example to help other families do likewise.

The 9,100 messengers from churches in the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) adopted a resolution urging newlyweds to make a marital "covenant" to seek help if their marriage sours.

The "covenant marriage" idea was part of a broad emphasis at the assembly on combatting divorce, beginning with an official SBC report on "Great Commission Families" presented to the crowd at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

Church leaders said they recognized that divorce strikes Baptist families as much as the rest of society.

About half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce. Studies have found that divorce is higher in the so-called "Bible Belt" the South and Midwest than in other regions of the country.

The idea of a "covenant marriage" also has been introduced in the marriage laws of Louisiana and Arizona.

Couples may request a "covenant marriage" license, in which they consent to premarital counseling, promise to seek counseling if the marriage becomes alienated and agree to terms that make divorce more difficult.

Southern Baptist leaders, who set up the Council on Family Life a year ago, said the emphasis on helping marriages through local churches still is to be developed.

Meanwhile, the SBC report on families recommended that a solution to family breakup is adherence to "scriptural principles of moral purity and marital fidelity," "consistent family time" in homes and "faithfulness in the ministries of their local church."

The recommendations also suggested that families learn financial responsibility by giving to their local church and encouraged them to "evangelize and disciple everyone, beginning with the family."

A study of conservative Protestant families by the Princeton University Center for Research on Child Wellbeing found that Southern Baptist families are more likely to divorce than the general population.

The study, based on the General Social Survey, suggested divorce rates are higher because evangelicals tend to marry younger and have a more idealized view of marriage, which more easily can be disillusioned.

The study´s author, Brad Wilcox, said that in the South, many nominal Baptists who do not attend church may account for the high divorce rate in that denomination. "There´s a whole range of studies that show regular churchgoers divorce far less," he said.

The leader of the SBC family council, the Rev. Thomas Elliff, urged Baptists to go to church and to set examples. "It is our conviction that a healthy, God-centered family is a winsome testimony," Mr. Elliff said.

The messengers also adopted resolutions against euthanasia, human cloning and Internet pornography. They supported a federal lawsuit charging the Navy with discrimination against evangelical chaplains. The SBC delegates also sided with the argument that some campaign-finance reforms will wrongly limit free speech.

The SBC president, the Rev. James Merritt, focused his annual convention speech on the struggle Christians face living in modern culture.

He said network television makes a mockery of Christians and when believers oppose abortion and homosexuality, they are bombed by "heat-seeking missiles" of the liberal culture and media.

"One president commits sexual sin in the Oval Office and the Christian Right is told to shut up," Mr. Merritt said. "Another president speaks openly of his faith in God and his trust in Christ, and he is told to shut up."

•This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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