IN modern Western societies, people tend to marry later in life – a fact that’s making the abstinence industry’s message all the more difficult to swallow.
So now some evangelical Christians are promoting earlier marriage, nudging young adults toward the altar even as many of their peers and parents are holding them back.
The call for young marriage raises questions: How young is too young? What if marriage is viewed as a ticket to guilt-free sex? What about the fact that marrying young is the No 1 predictor of divorce?
The conversation is spreading from what pastors say is a relatively small number of churches and ministries that promote early marriage to the broader evangelical community, with the latest development being a Christianity Today magazine cover story this month titled The Case for Young Marriage.
The article’s author, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, argues that evangelicals “have made much ado about sex” but are damaging the institution of marriage by discouraging and delaying it.
Regnerus is not saying that premarital sex is OK. But he does suggest that abstinence has its limits, and that intensifying the message won’t work. When people wait until their mid- to late 20s to marry, he writes, it’s unrealistic and “battling our creator’s reproductive designs” to expect them to wait that long for sex.
Evangelical discourse on sex is more conservative than I’ve ever seen it. Parents and pastors and youth group leaders told us not to do it before we got married. Why? Because the Bible says so. Yet that simple message didn’t go very far in shaping our sexual decision-making.
So they kicked it up a notch and staked a battle over virginity, with pledges of abstinence and accountability structures to maintain the power of the imperative to not do what many of us felt like doing. Some of us failed, but we could become â€˜born again virgins’ â€¦
â€˜Sex will be so much better if you wait until your wedding night,’ they urged. If we could hold out, they said, it would be worth it. The sheer glory of consummation would knock our socks off.
Such is the prevailing discourse of abstinence culture in contemporary American evangelicalism. It might sound like I devalue abstinence. I don’t. The problem is that not all abstainers end up happy or go on to the great sex lives they were promised. Nor do all indulgers become miserable or marital train wrecks. More simply, however, I have found that few evangelicals accomplish what their pastors and parents wanted them to.
The median age for first marriages in the US is about 26 for women and 28 for men, the highest figures since the Census Bureau began counting. Solid data on evangelicals is not readily available, but research suggests they marry only slightly younger, Regnerus said.
Many young adults today view their 20s as a time for fun, travel, career-building or finding themselves – not for settling down.
Jimmy Hester, co-founder of True Love Waits, part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources, disagrees with the argument that abstinence past a certain age is too much to ask.
There are too many examples of people who have done it. And not out of their own strength, even, but out of a relationship with God who gives them strength.
Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who studies families and public policy, said young marriage is a tough sell. A half-century ago, when people married earlier, fewer people attended college, high school graduates could get good-paying factory jobs, women became mothers right after school and families were larger, he said.
“Most evangelicals, as well as most Americans, realize how expensive it is to raise children these days,” Cherlin said. “The most important rationale for early marriage – having a larger family – has disappeared.”
Skeptics, meanwhile, suspect early marriage backers want to turn back the clock on gender roles, and take women back to the 1950s – or even further back in time.