A Response to the Argument for Early Marriage

By | August 2, 2009

Yesterday I happened to run across the cover article for this month’s Christianity Today magazine. The title caught my attention a bit, so I decided to read it. The article supports a view point which I’ve ran across before. There seems to be two opposing camps on this issue, while most “average” people probably fall in the middle somewhere. There is one camp which upholds marriage as being almost centrally important, even sometimes going so far as to say that it is sinful not to marry at a relatively young age. On the other side, there are those who say marriage has been over emphasized in christianity, and that we need to stop acting like it’s so important. I decided that this issue is important enough to take a look at here. So I decided to write a response to the article. I suggest you read the article first, as what follows is in response to and directly references the article.

Dr. Regnerus begins by talking about sex in the introductory section. By making this his introduction, he demonstrates that this is a primary focal issue in this article. Indeed, while the article is supposed to be about marriage, he really focuses more on sex. I believe this betrays the conservative viewpoint. It seems that conservative christianity has made doing and/or not doing certain things a central focus of what it means to be a christian. The article is not so much one in support of marriage as it is suggesting that early marriage is a solution to the “more important” issue of sex before marriage. I would disagree with this position. While I believe marriage should be the context for sex, Jesus said that they will know we are Christians by our love, not our abstinence nor support for marriage and family, etc. Furthermore, if we focus more on loving others, I believe that it will really impact our decisions regarding sex.

Dr. Regnerus does bring up some good points though. The great disparity between what we preach and what we practice begs for attention. In the second section, “Late Have I Loved You”, Dr. Regnerus suggests that it is unreasonable to expect people to refrain from sex even into their mid-twenties. He bases this on the fact that so many people engage in sexual activity by this point in their lives. I appreciate his honestly about this, and I think that honesty is critically needed. I would disagree with the notion that people can’t wait (while he verges on this idea, he doesn’t quite go that far)—to say so would be to deny all the people who have waited in the past and those who continue to wait even today.

Dr. Regnerus also brings up good points about the shortcomings of the church’s current teachings regarding sex. I especially appreciate his honesty when he says, “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.” Now there are certainly good reasons to abstain from sex until marriage, and benefits in marriage to having done so. However we can’t promote chastity using arguments that aren’t true. We must be honest and not succumb to conservative rhetorical fantasy.

One problem I have with the article is that beyond a general suggestion of getting married sooner in life, I feel little detailed or practical suggestion on how to better approach the issue of sex among Christians is given. Also, while he talks about the fact that people are generally waiting longer to get married—if they do at all—he doesn’t really examine the reasons this is the case. (There is only a brief mention of this happening in times of lengthy prosperity.) I feel a closer look at the reasons people aren’t marrying younger is needed in order to understand what might be done about it. (While he does look at some reasons later, I’m not sure how much they are primary reasons people in general are waiting.)

While Dr. Regnerus gives a few reasons that he believe marriages are important, he focuses on sexual desire as the primary reason to get married—and that at a relatively early age. I generally like this argument, and it seems logical. However, there are problems. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, this argument doesn’t provide a good answer to the issue of homosexuality. If heterosexual desire is a reason to get married to someone of the opposite sex, then in order to be logically consistent, I believe you would have to say the homosexual desire is a reason to get married to someone of the same sex. Of course most (at least conservative) christians would disagree with this, because they would say that marriage of people of the opposite sex is a goal, while homosexuality is forbidden. Since I do believe that the practice of homosexuality is not biblically permissible, I must conclude that sexual desire can not be a primary reason to argue for young marriage. So I think this logical dilemma asks for a greater theology of celibacy.

The third section, “Where Are All the Christian Men?”, Dr. Regnerus is mainly stating that there aren’t as many Christian men as there are Christian women. This may be true, but again little advice is given as to what to do about this situation. I might disagree with the statement that men know that there are more single women than men in the church. At least I don’t remember noticing this myself. Dr. Regnerus does bring up another good point though. I have heard it said that the sexual revolution has hurt women more than men. I also read another article about how there are generally more girls in college than guys, and therefore girls are put at a disadvantage when it comes to relationships. Generally speaking, it seems that women are more interested in waiting for a committed relationship (such as marriage) before engaging in sexual activity than men are. Again as a generality, more men seem to be able to engage in sexual activity without getting as emotionally tied to the woman and the relationship, as compared to women. In other words, women have more at stake, and more to lose. But because of the ratio of girls to guys, they are put in the position of being pressured to lower their standards in order to try and keep a guy, or risk being single indefinitely. (I know there are women who are just as open to sexual activity as the stereotypical guys, so these are just generalities.) One problem is that this approach is likely to backfire. Ironically, at least from the girl’s point of view, a guy is in general actually less likely to remain in a relationship long term, once sexual activity has begun.

At the end of this section, Dr. Regnerus falls into the same rut that often goes with this overall paradigm. He begins to blame men for the way things are, though doing so more subtly than I’ve seen in other places. The argument basically says that men are being immature and self-focused, preferring to have a “playboy” type life style rather than commit to marriage. This may be true sometimes, but is it really the case most of the time? As even he says next in the article, most people—including guys—say they want to get married. So I believe the issue has more to do with our thoughts on marriage and how we choose a spouse, rather than on men simply being irresponsible (or even sinful as some say).

In the forth section, “Changing Ideals”, Dr. Regnerus does start digging deeper. Besides briefly blaming parents, he mainly focuses on how our views on marriage have changed, and how this has affected how we approach marriage. Unfortunately, I found this section to be the most confusing, and wish it had been clarified more, because I believe he has some good things to say. “Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed.” This line was most interesting to me, and I believe it really captures a large part of the problem. Marriage has become an accessory. It’s not necessary, but is more like having a nice car: it’s something you decide to acquire to improve your own lifestyle. This affects our decisions about getting married, how we choose a spouse, and how our marriages play out once we’re in one.

In the following section, Dr. Regnerus address common reasons given for not marrying young. First I’ll point out something I see as an inconsistency. Dr. Regnerus states that he doesn’t think teen marriage is wise. Yet his primary argument for marrying young is due sexual desire, something most are experiencing by their early teen years. Is there something that magically changes between 19 and 20 as his statements would seem to suggest? Is it really unwise to marry as teens, but very wise to marry in one’s early twenties? Again, this seems inconsistent.

The first couple of reasons given for not marrying, basically have to do with not feeling ready. This goes along with what Dr. Regnerus said about viewing marriages as formative as opposed to waiting until one feels sufficiently formed in order to start considering marriage. He does bring up another interesting point: marriage as a competition. While I haven’t felt pressure to get married quickly, I can definitely relate to other parts of what he is saying here. It does often seem like the significant majority of the most attractive people get married young—and of course I want to see myself as one one of those attractive, successful people.

I think Dr. Regnerus gets matters confused on the third point. It is true that making a marriage last has more to do with right practices as opposed to being with the “right match”. (Indeed if a person places the primary focus on the being with “the right one”, when troubles come they may conclude that the problem is that they are not with the right one, and therefore getting out is the best solution.) But there are two separate issues here: one is helping a marriage to endure, the other is about how to select a mate. I don’t see how knowing that marriage isn’t mainly about “the right one” helps you decide who to marry (other than taking some of the pressure off). I feel that we need to do a much better job of explaining how to choose a mate.

The forth reason is a bit ironic, in that it seems to be a reason to get married young, rather than waiting (at least according to this article). But there is some good advice here, even if ironic. While Dr. Regnerus is arguing that sexual desire is a reason to marry young, he now advises to make sure that sexual desire is not the sole reason you are wanting to marry a specific person. Beyond being ironic, I think this point can be down right confusing. “You should get married because of your sexual desire, but don’t get married just because of your sexual desire.” Huh?

I agree that it is good to hear from other people and other generations specifically. There is no doubt much we can learn from them.

To sum up, I’d disagree with the elevated importance placed on sexual ethics in christianity (in comparison to other sins), though I believe we should strive to adhere to Christian sexual ethics. I think the argument for early marriage due to sexual desire is debatable. There is some value in marrying younger, and there are poor reasons to put off marrying. However I believe including a better understanding and appreciation for celibacy is a more complete solution. Beyond that, at the root, focusing on loving God and loving others ought to lead to righteous living in all areas of life, including sex. Finally, while marriages and families are good and were established by God, we need to be focusing on the right family. As a new creation, our family is the church: the fellowship of those who belong to Christ.

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