Should We Marry Younger?

Wow, did you see this piece in CT? It’s by Mark Regnerus.

Indeed, over 90 percent of American adults experience
sexual intercourse before marrying. The percentage of evangelicals who
do so is not much lower. In a nationally representative study of young
adults, just under 80 percent of unmarried, church- going, conservative
Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some
sort. I’m certainly not suggesting that they cannot abstain. I’m
suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don’t and won’t.

What to do? Intensify the abstinence message even more?
No. It won’t work. The message must change, because our preoccupation
with sex has unwittingly turned our attention away from the damage that
Americans–including evangelicals–are doing to the institution of
marriage by discouraging it and delaying it.

Late Have I Loved You

If you think it’s difficult to be pro-life in a
pro-choice world, or to be a disciple of Jesus in a sea of skeptics,
try advocating for young marriage. Almost no one empathizes, even among
the faithful. The nearly universal hostile reaction to my April 23,
2009, op-ed on early marriage in The Washington Post
suggests that to esteem marriage in the public sphere today is to speak
a foreign language: you invoke annoyance, confusion, or both.



But after years of studying the sexual behavior and
family decision-making of young Americans, 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. Americans are taking flight from
marriage. We are marrying later, if at all, and having fewer children.

While our sexual ideals have remained biblical and thus rooted in
marriage, our ideas about marriage have changed significantly. For all
the heated talk and contested referendums about defending marriage
against attempts to legally redefine it, the church has already ceded
plenty of intellectual ground in its marriage-mindedness. Christian
practical ethics about marriage–not the ones expounded on in books, but
the ones we actually exhibit–have become a nebulous hodgepodge of
pragmatic norms and romantic imperatives, few of which resemble
anything biblical.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Dave Leigh

    I married at 21 and it was a big mistake. I wasn’t prepared and I didn’t make a good partner. But our desire for sex was a factor in marrying a year after meeting each other. The marriage lasted 20 years but ended badly. The incompatibility just wore me out and I ended up making a lot of bad choices.
    In hindsight, I don’t think age is ever the issue, though. I think it has to do with how well you prepare, how well you choose, and how well you continue to follow the paths of wisdom and love. You can do this at any age.
    Why we marry and how we love are far more important than when we marry.
    I’ve come to see that sex is not a good reason to marry. Nor is need.
    Ideally, we should love from a surplus of who we are, not from needing something like sex or the affirmation of another person in order to feel complete or good about ourselves.
    The question, in my opinion, is not at what age to marry but why marry? And the second is like unto it: How well do we know how to love?
    I face these questions today as a divorcee approaching age 50 and I realize I could make the same mistakes all over again that I made in my 20s. Or I can learn and make wiser choices. This includes living my life as I understand God wants me to live sexually and learning how to develop genuine relational intimacy. I have seen sex serve as an inappropriate substitute for genuine relational intimacy for people who are single and married. I have seen people who didn’t really know each other marry for sex, or bypass marriage and just have a sexual relationship. Both make the same mistake as both miss the point of why God created sex as a critically important aspect of a lifelong partnership and love relationship.
    The best sex follows genuine relational intimacy. Never will sex alone or sex as an emphasis create genuine intimacy. Therefore, desire for sex is not the same as readiness for sex. Nor is a “need” for sex an indication of readiness for marriage. Marriage without readiness is a trap waiting to happen, as is sex without marriage. I recommend never becoming “one flesh” with someone before becoming one with them in heart, mind, soul, and spirit. As it turns out, this kind of intimacy begins with truly knowing ourselves. Some fail to achieve this at any age.

  • http://sacramentalliving.blogspot.com Gina

    I meet regularly with a group of friends for dinner and the subject of marrying young has come up more than once. Mainly myself and another friend are of the point of view that we infantilize our youth and that they are capable of so much more than what our society tells them, whether that involves work, thinking or relationships. If we raise our children in an atmosphere of responsibility and love, not the mush stuff, but the truly self-sacrificing kind, they will learn that relationships are about giving and not getting.
    Most marriages today end not because one or both spouses lack self-esteem, but because they lack true love. If a person’s question when contemplating marriage is, “What can I offer my spouse?”, rather than, “What can I get?”, then I think that is a person who may very well be ready for marriage, whether they are 18 or 40 years old.

  • http://thewalk2.blogspot.com/ The Walk

    Instead of pushing people to marry, perhaps the church needs to address how to be single. What does it mean to be a single person in the Kingdom of God? What does a healthy marriage look like, and what is it based on? (Self sacrifice as opposed to self absorption).
    For many people, it’s a cultural norm to assume you need to be part of a pair in order to have significance. A lot of people (at least a lot of young adults) base much of their identity on who they are dating, and if they have no significant other, they feel incomplete. Pushing for young marriage might simply reinforce this mindset. Instead, we need to encourage people to make biblically based decisions regarding their relationships–whether that means marrying the boyfriend, or embracing the unique ministry opportunities that often come with singleness.
    As a single 25-year-old, I know that singleness and marriage are two different kinds of gifts that God can use to bless the world. God can use a marriage that someone entered into for the sake of sex, but His ideal for bringing people together is so much bigger than that.
    Why would we want to encourage something that falls short?

  • T

    In line with several of the above comments, I don’t know that I think we should push marriage earlier, rather the concept of responsibility, service and maturity (in singleness or marriage). It’s more a formational issue about what the good life is and how it is pursued for the average teen and young twenty-something. But as Scot has highlighted here before, people are generally maturing later and later, if ever maturing along the lines of Christ (even if they’re having sex younger and younger). I think both of these phenomena have a common cause: the increased public worship of youth and the pleasures of life that are strongly linked to youth. This worship simultaneously makes sex more of a pull, earlier and earlier, and makes everyone less prepared to love and serve.
    FWIW, I was married at 21 (my wife, Kim, was 20). It’s been over 14 years and being married to Kim is honestly the best part of getting to be me. We are truly more trusting and appreciative of each other than ever, which makes so many things great. I’m fine with younger marriages if the couple has some kind of Jesus-shaped maturity about what makes a good life.

  • http://genesisministries.blogspot.com Rakhi

    We’ve had this very debate among our own ministry staff – and I really think it gets back to the heart of what people’s understanding of marriage is.
    In the Catholic Church, viewed as a vocation, it is something God leads us to, not something we just decide for ourselves. Well, there’s problem #1 – how many in this culture would say that God was a part of their deciding to enter into marriage (heck, how many within the Church for that matter!)? (I’m hopeful in saying the numbers may be increasing with our youth? Let a lady live with rose colored glasses for the day!)
    Those that are against the young marriages tend to say that they are too immature, they are not done “forming themselves” and that down the road that will cause problems. My take? That attitude will cause problems down the road no matter what age. We are not done being formed in this lifetime. We grow, we change, life happens – if we’re of the opinion that by marrying later in life we will find a more perfect fit, then we delude ourselves into making marriage something it is not.
    Now, for some of us, myself included, God didn’t provide the option until later in life. Even now, I go in knowing that as much as we are glowing in the bask of “young love” now, life brings struggles.
    No matter what age, I think if couples go in with a solid grasp of what a Christian marriage is (vs. a Hollywood romance), it will provide a solid foundation for the years to come, however long God may grant them.
    As for the premarital sex question…I think it is a cop-out to say the numbers are high because people are getting married later. I think it’s just a fact that there is A LOT of pressure, no matter when you are married. Sure, the older you get, the harder it is, but again, I think it (for Christians), comes back to having a solid footing in Christ and a solid community of support. I know many young women and men that are reaching their 30s unmarried with virginity in tact. Are they the norm? No. Does it give me hope for my children? You bet!

  • http://soulformation.wordpress.com/ Matthew R Green

    Sure, American Christians have botched the job when talking about marriage, but that’s a symptom, not the disease. The Christian subculture is, on the whole, not any different than the general American culture. Christians want the same things, chase after the same things, believing the same things will make them happy, and suffer the same consequences when these things don’t do what they thought they’d do. What really makes a typical Christian different than the average Joe in America other than not sleeping in Sunday morning, advocating conservative political views (typically), and using their own specialized language (sin, Jesus, forgive, worship, etc.)? The failure of sexual and marital life among Christians is merely a symptom of the attempt to live with God’s and the world’s values simultaneously. The world’s win out because people are broken and foolish and infected by sin. Thus, those parts of their lives are marred just as everything else is.
    I don’t disagree that we are foolish about the way we look at marriage many times, but this is a heart issue, and the heart issues that we’re dealing with are pervasive and more broad than just that. We cannot expect that we will succeed in fixing things by rethinking individual matters. We need a Savior for our whole hearts.

  • Jjoe

    I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where there is a church every mile or two and one of the first questions you’re asked when meeting someone new is “What church do you attend?”
    This is also a state that consistently is a national leader in both teenage pregnancy and divorce.
    There are other factors at work, of course, such as educational attainment and parental role modeling, but religion is a strong ingredient in this culture.
    (It is ironic that the more secular the state/country, the lower the amount of “sin,” whether that sin be divorce, teenage pregnancy or even lack of health care for the poor.)
    I don’t agree with the author that Christianity is pushing to delay or discourage marriage. I see just the opposite – early marriages, driven by the desire (perhaps consummated) for sex, followed by children, followed by divorce.
    The main reason I discourage my daughter from getting married early is not maturity, it’s getting an education and attaining financial stability. I’d like to have grandchildren before I’m 80 years old, but I’d also like those grandchildren to be raised in a unbroken home.

  • http://www.lovegodwithallyourmind.com Kenny Johnson

    If we’re pushing marriage as a remedy for pre-marital sex, then I think that’s very wrong-headed. What’s worst? Pre-marital sex or a bad marriage then ends in hurt, divorce, and confusion and pain for the children?
    I don’t think marrying young is wrong, however. As others pointed out — if they people are ready and understand what self-sacrificing love is, then it’s fine. The older generations married young, but I also think they learned responsibility much younger. Marrying young can certainly help a couple get their feet off the ground earlier — especially if they wait to have children. They could be DINKs for 5-10 years and finish school/training, buy a house, etc.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Admittedly having read only the parts of the article quoted in this blog (but having read that part twice), I beg very much to differ with the apparent assertion that to delay marriage is to be “slow and lax” about it. I married “late” (I was 29) because I thought marriage was so *important*!
    (Incidentally, I’m apparently one of that 10% who waited, too…)

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    Personal reflection: Our wedding was 2 days after my 24th birthday, her 21st. That was nearly 12 years ago. We knew we were young but there was a certain charm to growing up together. I valued the opinion of our parents and fellow church members. We had their input and support, which was a help. We were both naive for sure. But that isn’t all bad. I do not regret it and given a chance to do it all over again, I would make the same decision. Marrying young has been a disaster for many. But for us it was just right.
    It hasn’t made education and finances easy. But that also gives us a chance to work together as a team.
    I have seen families aim at marriage for their kids like it was the finish line of a race. Some brands of home-schooling tend to have this focus. Shoving your kids into it is different than having your kids walk into it as best they know how, with the support of church and family.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    Folks, how many commenting here have read the article? It is very provocative and challenging, and well worth the effort. I daresay the author is onto something.

  • AHH

    I didn’t get married until 37 (wife in same ballpark), but I’m not sure my particular reasons are translatable to the general case. While I was in that minority who “waited”, that may have been as much social awkwardness over the years as moral fiber on my part.
    While I think much of the move for later marriage among Christians stems from the same reasons as the rest of the culture (women getting an education first, delayed maturity, etc.), there is also a sense in which people want to be really, really certain it is “right” before taking the plunge. I can think of a few reasons for that:
    1) Young people today have seen more of the consequences of “getting it wrong”: divorce of parents, friends, etc.
    2) Teachings that imply God has one particular person out there for you to marry, and missing God’s will is a bad thing, so you’d better be real sure you have found that one person.
    3) Evangelical culture that idolizes marriage and children, leading to two effects:
    3a) Hesitation to enter marriage because how can one live up to the ideal the church lifts up.
    3b) Resentment about the way the church marginalizes the unmarried, so why would a single person want to join the group that has been treating him/her as an incomplete person. This resentment might also contribute to rebellion against the sexual ethics taught by the church.

  • Nate

    Friends, please read the entire article! The real benefit of the article is not debating the specific suggestion for early marriage (and debating it primarily based upon on our personal experience!), rather the main benefit of the article is that it makes us wrestle with our perspectives on the purpose of marriage. The author claims that our Christian view of marriage in America is no different from the culture’s view. Do you agree or not?

  • http://sacramentalliving.blogspot.com Gina

    Wonders for Oyarsa,
    Yes I read the article and his earlier article in the Wall Street Journal. I think he is indeed onto something.
    Pax.

  • http://theoreflec.blogspot.com/ Pat

    I do not advocate marrying younger for any reason and particularly not for sex. Paul advocates it, but only for those that feel they cannot wait. I guess I’m disappointed if that many young people can’t wait and opt for running to the altar. I’d like to think that we could learn to exercise restraint in our culture. (I like Paul, wish that all could be like me.) I think doing it sooner to avoid sexual impurity as the only reason is not good and may devalue marriage just as much as those that would poo-poo it for being antiquated. The Church should uphold both marriage and singleness and equip their congregants with support for either choice. Their is value in either choice.

  • Marty

    This will just further marginalize unmarried people. The judgment will extend from older singles even to the younger singles. Churches have much deeper spiritual problems than the question of at what age they should encourage young people to marry. Why not preach to the many married Christians who are hypocrites; who decide to attend church only after having had children; who judge and exclude their brethren who are single; and who then go on to get divorced themselves? THEN you will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake!

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    #11,
    I read the full article since my first post. My initial reaction remains the same, although I’ll grant now that the aspects quoted here didn’t put that article in the best light. The article is DEFINITELY on to something insofar as he argues that we’re not helping the extra-marital (to say nothing of pre-marital) sex situation in how our strategy has amounted to making promises to young people that we definitely haven’t been (and never COULD have been) able to keep.
    It’s when he turns those comments into an argument for getting married younger that I think he goes awry.

  • Robyn

    I read the entire article. More than once. Encouraging young couples who are READY for marriage to go ahead and marry I can agree with. Why shouldn’t they marry if they are ready? However, creating an idol out of marriage and telling young people that they should hurry up and get married so that they don’t end up having premarital sex, that I disagree with.
    All the anecdotes really fall short, in my opinion, of a convincing argument. Sure, many young marriages turn out wonderfully. Many don’t. I suppose you have about a 50/50 chance. Rather than pushing a “young marriage” agenda, our efforts would be better spent making sure that people have a solid foundation for understanding what marriage is, what it requires, and how God intends it to be, no matter at what age God brings them into it.


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