This November, in Wichita, Kansas, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical parents will gather at a conference to create betrothals for their marriageable children—with emphasis on the word children. This conference is called Let Them Marry and will be held by fundamentalist writer Vaughn Ohlman. I’ve avoided writing about Ohlman here for a while now, but this conference is so the last straw.
Let me start with how a parent can know if their child is ready to be married off:
1) The ‘youth’ ready for marriage has breasts. A woman who is to be married is one who has breasts; breasts which signal her readiness for marriage, and breasts who promise enjoyment for her husband. (We believe that ‘breasts’ here stand as a symbol for all forms of full secondary sexual characteristics.)
No, this is not satire. That is what it says.
2) The ‘youth’ ready for marriage is ready to bear children. Unlike modern society Scripture sees the woman as a bearer, nurser, and raiser of children. The ‘young woman’ is the woman whose body is physically ready for these things, physically mature enough to handle them without damage.
Okay, hang on a moment here. Girls’ bodies are physically able to have children far before it is fully safe for their bodies to bear children. The United Nations is trying to eradicate child marriage—i.e. the marriage of those under age 18—in part because early and mid-teen female bodies are not truly ready for childbearing. If Ohlman were serious about young women’s bodies being “physically mature enough” to handle childbearing “without damage” he would be telling parents they should not marry off their underage daughters, but he is most emphatically not doing so.
Let’s look further:
The Bible provides many reasons for marriage, and most if not all of them demonstrate that marriage typically ought to happen in the youth (as in, before the age of 20).
Ohlman says young people should get married before they reach age 20, but he’s also not telling parents that means they should encourage their children to marry at age 18 or 19. No, he’s suggesting that those ages are the oldest ages at which young people should marry. The United Nations considers all marriages before age 18 child marriages, and these are just what Ohlman is encouraging with his writings and his conference:
We also quote some old commentators (Calvin, Gill, Luther) who assign particular age ranges to clarify what we should already know to be “youth”. (Seriously, most churches today have “youth groups”, which are for their teenage population.) And we generally agree with these men. John Calvin defines the “flower of her age” (1 Corinthians 7:36) as “from twelve to twenty years of age”. Likewise, John Gill defines it as “one of twelve years and a half old”. And Martin Luther says, “A young man should marry at the age of twenty at the latest, a young woman at fifteen to eighteen…”
Yes, really. Ohlman does add this:
We do not endorse marriage at ages as young as twelve.
Why quote those writers suggesting age 12 at all, then?
In various articles, Calvin, Gill, and Luther are quoted to support the Biblical view of young marriage. These do also mention an age of 12 as the youngest age, but we use them because they mention the age of 20 as the very latest someone (without the rare gift of celibacy) should marry and that the person would be in active sin as a result; we do not quote them because we believe that twelve year olds are ready for marriage.
Let me explain why quoting Calvin, Gill, and Luther is a bad idea here. Ohlman believes 12 is too young for marriage, but he doesn’t really explain why, and how does he know parents reading his articles, in which he approvingly quotes these writers, will agree with him rather than with these writers? He wants parents to come away thinking “okay, I need to get my kids married off by age 20,” but how does he know they won’t come away thinking “wow, Calvin, Gill, and Luther are well respected and instrumental church writers, they must have been right about this”?
But for Ohlman it’s the magic number 20 that matters, over and over:
[W]e are certainly in agreement with the commentators that marriage (in order to be timely and to accomplish its purposes) ought to happen before the age of twenty for almost everyone.
It just so happens that those who marry before age 20 are more likely to divorce than any other group. I’m sure Vaughn assumes that his children are exempt from this, but he would do well to ask why this group is so likely to divorce. The truth is that teenagers are still finding themselves, still growing into mature, adult individuals, and marrying them off before they’ve found themselves is unwise, because it assumes they’ll grow into people who are compatible, when they can’t know that. Of course, Ohlman is almost certainly against young people “finding themselves” to begin with.
I’ve seen some discussion of whether this event may de facto be a form of sex trafficking, and I do think there is some reason for concern. Consider this:
Bride price: What is it, and why is it important? Wouldn’t a bride price be like selling your daughter?
A “bride price” is anything paid or given by the man or his representative at the time of his betrothal or receiving his bride.
Scripture certainly teaches about it, but it is not mandated, however, except in the case of a couple of laws. The law concerning bride price (Exodus 22:16-17) indicates that . . . the bride price was a normal part of the marriage process.
The bride price plays a significant function: It shows the woman’s value, and the point isn’t that the father gets the money but that he keeps it for his daughter, if her husband should ever abandon her.
In other words, we’re talking about young men (and their parents) paying the parents of a girl who may be only 15, 16, or 17, a bride price in exchange for receipt of the girl. So let’s ask a question. Does the girl have a choice in this matter?
What if the person objects to the prospective spouse? Is there an opportunity to veto?
. . .
Considering it is their parents who would be finding them a spouse, what would be their basis for objecting? Looks? How much money they have? Their hobbies or interests? Maybe their personality? All of these things can change and likely will change over the course of a marriage. Even a person’s beliefs may change over time. . . .
Finally, we must understand that a wife (or husband, as the case may be) is a gift. A gift from God first and foremost, and a gift through our parents as representative agents. What should be our attitude about someone who is ungrateful and who rejects a gift they have been given?
Preferences, hopes, and desires are not wrong in and of themselves. Perhaps they should even been actively sought when possible and when appropriate. But it is a problem when we begin to make non-essentials into essentials. . . .
That makes it sound like any girl (or teenage boy) who objects to a match arranged by their parents should be seen as ungrateful and out of line. The amount of pressure to accept such a match, especially at a highly charged and isolated conference such as this will be, will surely be enormous. Where is there any room to object?
What about after the conference? Can a young person back out?
. . . there is no decision to be made once a betrothal is final. There is no approval required or veto allowed.
So that’s a no, then.
And actually, Ohlman goes on further as follows:
Doesn’t a legitimate marriage require the consent of both the people marrying?
Scripture speaks of the father of the son “taking a wife” for his son, and the father of the bride “giving” her to her husband (Jeremiah 29: 6; Judges 21: 7; Ezra 9:12; Nehemiah 10: 30; 1 Corinthians 7:36-38). It gives example after example of young women being given to young men, without the young woman even being consulted, and often, in some of the most Godly marriages in Scripture, the young man is not consulted.
I really wish this was a joke, I really really do, but it’s not.
How this might look today is this:
A Godly man, raising Godly children, should raise them in such a way that they understand that, in general, the provision of a spouse is something that should come from their father. He should, in his conversations with them, assure himself of their understanding of, and compliance with, this concept. Then, when he has been assured, and when they are of an age where marriage is appropriate for them, he should agree with another father as to their betrothal. Then, in wisdom, he, along with the other father, should again go to his own child to assure himself of their integrity of purpose before announcing their new betrothed spouse to them. Then, the son or daughter, must “consent” to the marriage—but it is very important to realize that this type of “consent” is the kind of obedient consent we see in the examples of Adam, Eve, Isaac, Rebecca, and Christ. It is consent where the son or daughter, realizing that their father has bound them and then submits to the covenant as binding, recognizing the good gift their father has given them.
I cannot even with this.
So, let’s review. Young people should marry before age 20. Girls should have breasts, but not be 12. So probably like at least 15. The betrothal, which happens before the official legal marriage, is binding. This way parents can betroth children who may not yet be legally able to marry in their state. The matches should be arranged by the fathers, and ideally the teenage boy’s father should pay a “bride price” to the teenage girl’s family. The young people in question are expected to accept the matches their parents arrange for them, period and full stop, and there is no reason to consult them in the process—it is their duty to accept the arrangement.
And while we’re at it, the FAQ reads like it was written by someone who spends way too much time thinking about the bodies (and breasts) of underage girls.
I really wish I could just gawk at this, I really do, but I was homeschooled and I knew families who were into things like this. If this had been around when I was a teen, it is very likely that families I knew would have gone—and it is barely possible that my own family might have considered it (though I very much hope they wouldn’t have). These are real people we’re talking about, and the number of fellow homeschool alumni I know who entered into early marriages like these and are now divorced seems to be growing by the month. Need I add that young women typically exit these marriages with little in the way of education, skills, or career prospects?
This is beyond not okay.