‘Sister Wives’: Why Doesn’t Meri Brown’s Church Recognize Her Divorce From Kody?

Meri Brown and Kody Brown, of the polygamist family from TLC’s Sister Wives, have been open about struggling with their marriage for years. Many Sister Wives fans have expressed confusion over their marital status, since the couple supposedly divorced over five years ago. 

Kody’s three other wives, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown, were never legally married to him. But after over 20 years of marriage recognized by the state, Kody and Meri divorced in 2014. Still, both the couple and those who share their religious beliefs do not consider them divorced. Why do the Sister Wives stars consider themselves married despite signing divorce papers?

Kody, Meri, and Mariah Brown
Kody and Meri Brown with their daughter Mariah | Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

Meri legally divorced Kody so he could adopt fourth wife Robyn’s children

Meri agreed to legally divorce Kody so he could legally adopt his fourth wife Robyn’s children, Dayton, Aurora, and Brianna, from a previous marriage. While Meri admitted to struggling with the decision at the time, she also told TLC producers she was not actually divorcing Kody. 

The Sister Wives family referred to the divorce as a “legal divorce” specifically and emphasized they considered it only a “piece of paper.”

Many Sister Wives fans were confused by the “cheating” allegations that dogged Meri after she had an emotional affair with a catfish, who turned out to be a woman posing as a man, in 2015. After all, many viewers wondered, wasn’t she divorced from Kody in 2014? How could she be cheating? The answer comes down to the Sister Wives’ religious beliefs around marriage.

The ‘Sister Wives’ family belongs to a fundamentalist Mormon sect with unconventional marriage traditions

The Brown family belongs to the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), a fundamentalist offshoot of Mormonism (or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). While Meri was raised in the sect in a polygamist family, Kody was raised in the mainstream LDS (Mormon) church and left to join the AUB as an adult.

The AUB, sometimes called “The Work” by insiders or the Allred group by outsiders, endorses polygamy, otherwise known as “plural marriage” or “celestial marriage.” The sect has around 7,500-10,000 members, most of whom live in Utah and surrounding rural areas in the Mountain West. 

Despite the group’s belief in polygamy, they are often considered the most “liberal” of the fundamentalist Mormon sects.

In a primer for law enforcement officials who might interact with AUB members, an official statement from the group explains they are against any underage marriages or “child bride” situations, as well as any and all abuse. They also aren’t as strict about rules like abstinence from alcohol, tea, and coffee as some other Mormon groups.

In terms of marriage, the AUB also says they are against any form of arranged or forced marriages for both first and plural wives. First wives can be under 18, according to AUB rules, if they are of legal marriage age according to the state. Second wives (and beyond) must be 18 or over.

The Browns believe in ‘eternal,’ spiritual marriage only

Within the AUB and other fundamentalist Mormon groups, only marriages conducted in a Mormon temple and “sealed for eternity” by male church elders (who have “the priesthood,” according to church doctrine) are recognized. Members believe they are sealed to their spouses and children for eternity rather than for life.

That means that Meri and Kody’s divorce would be considered only a legal matter within their religion. The Sister Wives stars, as well as others in their faith, believe that legal marriage and divorce alike are not important in terms of determining a member’s actual marital status. 

This doctrine is why Meri’s divorce from Kody is not considered “real,” as well as why the Brown family considers Kody’s marriages to Janelle and Christine (to whom he has never been legally married) “real.”