Shifts in a culture are often signaled by unexpected developments that represent far more than may first meet the eye. The cover story in the August 2009 edition of Christianity Today may signal such a shift among American evangelicals. In this case the cultural shift is nothing less than an awakening to the priority of marriage. At the very least, it represents a public airing of the question of the delay of marriage among evangelical young people. In that sense, it is a bombshell.
In “The Case for Early Marriage,” sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas in Austin argues that far too many American evangelicals have attempted to deal with sex without understanding marriage. In particular, he asserts that the “prevailing discourse of abstinence culture in contemporary American evangelicalism” has run aground. While not devaluing abstinence, Regnerus explains that his research has led him to believe “that few evangelicals accomplish what their pastors and parents wanted them to do” — which is to refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage.
Regnerus understands that many evangelical parents and pastors are most likely to respond to this reality with the reflex mechanism of an even greater emphasis upon sexual abstinence. Nevertheless, the data reveal that the majority of evangelical young people — most of whom have been targeted for years with messages of sexual abstinence — are engaging in sexual intercourse before marriage.
Regnerus’s proposal is not to devalue sexual abstinence, but to address the fundamental issue of marriage. As he explains, “I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians have made much ado about sex but are becoming slow and lax about marriage — that more significant, enduring witness to Christ’s sacrificial love for his bride.”
In reality, American evangelicals are not “becoming slow and lax about marriage.” To the contrary, this is now a settled pattern across the evangelical landscape. Regnerus gets the facts straight, reporting that the median age at first marriage is now 26 for women and 28 for men — an increase of five years since 1970. As he notes, “That’s five additional, long years of peak sexual interest and fertility.” Though evangelical Christians are marrying at slightly earlier ages than other Americans, Regnerus correctly observes that this is “not by much.”
At this point, Regnerus delivers his bombshell:
Evangelicals tend to marry slightly earlier than other Americans, but not by much. Many of them plan to marry in their mid-20s.Yet waiting for sex until then feels far too long to most of them. And I am suggesting that when people wait until their mid-to-late 20s to marry, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from sex. It’s battling our Creator’s reproductive designs.
Note carefully that Regnerus is not endorsing sex before marriage. In this context he is first of all reporting on research. In his 2007 book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press), Regnerus made this point with brutal clarity. But, as almost any minister working with high school and college students will tell you, the research simply verifies what is either admitted or tacitly acknowledged by Christian young people.
Back in April of this year, Regnerus wrote an op-ed column for The Washington Post arguing for early marriage. In his words, his article met with a “nearly universal hostile reaction.” As one who has made similar arguments in public for years now, I can understand his pained reflection that even to raise this issue in public is to risk being heard as speaking a “foreign language.” But this is not universally true. There are many evangelical young people, parents, and pastors who fundamentally agree that evangelicals are putting off marriage for far too long. More and more are speaking this language every day.
In making his own argument, Mark Regnerus helpfully dispels many of the common arguments against early marriage. Of equal importance, he also points to a concern peculiar to American evangelicalism. “The ratio of devoutly Christian young women to men is far from even. Among evangelical churchgoers, there are about three single women for every two single men. This is the elephant in the corner of almost every congregation — a shortage of young Christian men.” This is a sobering but very important observation. As Regnerus also notes, men often delay marriage believing that they can always marry when ever they are “ready.” Meanwhile, their evangelical sisters are often very ready for marriage, even as they watch their prospects for both marriage and fertility falling.
All of this points to the fact that the delay of marriage has far more to do with the patterns of life adopted by many, if not most, evangelical young men, rather than those chosen by young women. Yet, at the same time, the parents of both young men and young women can, by either intention or default, make it difficult for their children to marry.
The most important contribution made by Mark Regnerus is to raise this issue in such a bold way. He is certainly correct when he asserts that the church “has already ceded plenty of intellectual ground in its marriage-mindedness.” Beyond this, he is even more profoundly right when he argues that “while sex matters, marriage matters more.” As he observes, “The importance of Christian marriage as a symbol of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people — and a witness to the future union of Christ and his bride — will only grow in significance as the wider Western culture diminishes both the meaning and actual practice of marriage. Marriage itself will become a witness to the gospel.”
Yet, marriage has always been a witness to the gospel, even as it existed in anticipation of the gospel. From the very beginning of the Christian church, marriage has been an important dimension of our witness to Christ and to the covenant of our salvation. In so many beautiful ways, marriage points to the very character of God.
The vast majority of Christians who have gone before us would surely be shocked by the very need for a case to be made for Christian adults to marry. While the New Testament clearly honors the gift of celibacy for the cause of the Gospel, the eight out of ten evangelical young people admitting to sexual intercourse before marriage are clearly making no claim to the gift of celibacy.
The biblical case for early marriage is even stronger than Regnerus indicates. Our bodies are not evolutionary accidents, and God reveals his intention for humanity through the gifts of sexual maturation, fertility, and sexual desire. As men and women, we are made for marriage. As Christians, those not called to celibacy are called to demonstrate our discipleship through honoring the Creator’s intention by directing sexual desire and reproductive capacity into a commitment to marriage. Marriage is the central crucible for accepting and fulfilling the adult responsibilities of work, parenthood, and the full acceptance of mature responsibilities.
Mark Regnerus certainly drives the point home when he argues that “when people wait until their mid-to-late 20s to marry, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from sex.” Nevertheless, Christians are called to a moral standard that, by any secular standard, is profoundly unreasonable. I would prefer to argue that the delay of marriage is unwise, not only because of the demonstrated risk of sexual immorality, but because of the loss of so much God gives to us in marriage.
At the end of the day, the most important fact about this article is that it appears as a cover story for Christianity Today. In that sense, the cover has been blown when it comes to the crisis of evangelical young people and the delay of marriage. It’s about time.
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