Reading time: approximately 15 minutes.
This post is something of a large-scale roadmap for my thinking on this issue; in the near future I plan to break down many of the points in this post individually, explaining each point in more detail.
I’ve been wanting to make a few posts on this topic for a while (after having gotten into several conversations about it, both online and in person), and this article from MSNBC.com has provided an excellent stimulus. The basic premise of the article is that Evangelicals are caught between preaching abstinence until marriage and the cultural forces that are pushing marriage later and later (present averages are over 27 and 25 for men and women, respectively). I have been observing this phenomenon with some interest of late, watching (for example) as Bristol Palin gets clobbered by Evangelicals for speaking the truth.
What is striking is that Bristol’s comments actually are fairly close to those of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:1–3, where he says,
“It is good for a man not to touch a woman [sexually], but [realistically], because of immoralities [Gk. πορνεία, "porneia"], each man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. The husband is obligated to fulfill his [sexual] duty to his wife, and likewise she to him.”
In other words, Paul says, “Yes, it would be best for everyone to abstain, but seriously, let’s be realistic. With all the sex out there [think of Corinth as the Las Vegas of the first century], people should just get married—it’s way more realistic than telling them to keep their hands off each other.” Likewise, Paul’s advocacy of marriage in this passage amounts to a rather striking concession: “But if they can’t control themselves, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.”
If Evangelicals are going to be serious in their advocacy of abstinence-until-marriage, they need to start taking passages like these seriously. [digression]But in order to do this, most Evangelicals are first going to have to readjust their attitude towards sex and physical desire in general to the more neutral and realistic view witnessed in the Bible. I am amazed at how so many evangelicals take a decidedly negative view of anything physical/bodily/sensual. Far too many Evangelicals want to pretend marriage isn’t about sex to begin with. It’s shocking, really, because it’s such a distortion of the biblical text (then again, it is quite in line with hyper-Augustinianism and traces back through the Puritan roots of most American Evangelicalism, so it shouldn’t be so surprising). [/digression] The only realistic solution is to take the same path Paul did—push for earlier marriage.
Otherwise, the continued embarrassment of Evangelical teens turning up pregnant (as this New Yorker article addresses) will continue to increase. Face it—one cannot choose to oppose cultural norms on one hand (advocating abstinence) while simultaneously upholding the very direction of that cultural current on the other (late marriage). Frankly, the “blue state” sexual ethic addressed in the New Yorker discussion, while unsustainable in my opinion (the idea that people can engage in unmarried sex “safely” thanks to contraception and abortion is ridiculous and ends up being harmful to the women of the society holding that view in the long run—the men are impacted too, but less tangibly), is at least consistent and realistic inasmuch as it recognizes the power of basic human drives. (Drives, I would add, that any Evangelical must admit were placed in each person by God, who declared these drives good at creation.) At least those following the non-abstinence route are actually living by their beliefs instead of lying to themselves.
In order to understand the problem more fully, it is necessary to understand from the start that a certain inconsistency has worked itself into the popular Evangelical view of marriage. The mere observation of the abstinence/late marriage paradox is actually helpful in revealing this inconsistency.
For one, the nature and definition of marriage in the West has been in flux for some time; the very reasons we marry in our culture have largely been redefined. As University of Iowa sociologist Christine Whelan has pointed out, marriage in American society has come to be about personal enrichment, about “what the relationship can do for you as an individual.” And, I would argue, the Evangelical church at the lay level has largely embraced this shift. In my own experience, I have seen little difference between most Evangelicals’ views of marriage and the rest of American culture’s, aside from the stated position that sex should be reserved until marriage.
If anything, as Glenn Stanton points out in the MSNBC article on abstinence, the Evangelical culture has pushed the “eHarmony philosophy,” that is, “the belief God will deliver someone perfect.” Perfect, I would ask, for whom? As someone who grew up with a lot of exposure to Evangelical culture, I can attest to this expectation—teens are told to save sex for marriage because their spouse will be “worth waiting for” (an interesting flip-side to the prudery that often plagues Evangelicals is the absurdly high expectations of mind-blowing post-marital sex that awaits the abstinent as a reward for their endurance, expectations built in part to reinforce convictions in the present). And they are told they shouldn’t marry until they’re absolutely sure they’ve found (in the words of Dr. Neil Clark Warren—a former Focus on the Family writer/personality) their “soul mate.”
Of course, such expectations of marriage will lead to disappointment the vast majority of the time. Marriage involves a lot of work and compromise, and disillusionment spawned by the discovery that the person one married was not created exclusively for one’s own pleasure is a certain result. So the message of “wait until you find your soul mate and then you can live happily ever after” has become, in my view, extremely harmful to the Evangelical church, leaving many disenchanted and jaded people in its wake, people who did not experience the joys of a perfect marriage and the rest of a “blessed life” the way they expected. And that each party enters the marriage expecting the other to be “perfect for me” is an ideal way to create especially selfish expectations rather than the commitment and compromise foundational to a strong and lasting marriage. The result? The same divorce rate in the church as in the rest of society, despite a stated contempt for divorce.
The essence of the problem is that the Evangelical world, while maintaining an especially high view of marriage in line with Christian tradition (and paying at least lip service to the horror of divorce), has simultaneously embraced an incompatible cultural mindset of how and why one marries (i.e. for “personal enrichment,” for effectively self-centered reasons). Aside from some corners of the Evangelical world that push “courting” (i.e. “serious” dating, with marriage in mind from the start), the search for a mate looks largely the same among Evangelicals as it does elsewhere.
But that’s not all; basic cultural values and the definitions of “success,” the expense of weddings, and the presumed necessities of raising children have likewise contributed to the mixed message of abstinence and delayed marriage. Ask most middle-class Evangelical teens when they should get married, and I would guarantee that 9 out of 10 would respond, “after college.” (I’m actually not sure how this mindset gets started in the Christian world, but there is a sort of odd expectation that life is somehow supposed to work this way: finish high school, move away, go to college, meet one’s mate (if one hasn’t already), finish college (and maybe a Master’s), get married. Many abstinent Evangelical kids who do finish school and don’t have marriage on the horizon fall off the abstinence wagon sometime soon after that, as disenchanted with the violation of expectations as those who married and discovered that it’s hard work, and by this point having a starved sexual appetite, ready to try the sexual experiences they heard about (and witnessed) all through college but resisted.
But why is finishing college somehow the barrier that means a person is “ready for marriage” (a ridiculous notion to begin with—no one is ever completely ready for marriage)? The answer is that it became a norm simply because it ties directly to financial status—the same thing now pushing the average marriage age closer to 30. People are told they shouldn’t marry “until they’re financially secure.” (And what, pray tell, is “financial security,” anyway? Aside from the most wealthy, nobody is really financially secure; we’re all just an economy crash away from having nothing.) On the one hand, there’s some truth to this inasmuch as the #1 cause of divorce is usually some disagreement over money. On the other hand, this very protection of middle-class status and fear of poverty is itself foreign to the Gospel message supposedly embraced by Evangelicals. Why, for young people supposedly out to convert the world, regardless of the cost, are finances such a concern? Again, the Evangelical marriage paradox reflects the incompatibility of the cultural and theological commitments.
Likewise to the notion that people shouldn’t get married until they’re 25, since people aren’t entirely developed as adults until then. Wait a minute. So you’re telling me that we should wait until we’re completely stuck in our ways and established as individuals and then try to establish a lasting unity? How does that make sense? Wouldn’t the couple marrying younger have a chance to grow together as a couple in a way that people who were already more established wouldn’t? And if we’re going to bring biology into it, why would anyone think it a good idea to make it normative to abstain from sex at precisely the time of life that the sex drive is at its peak? That’s nonsense! That’s not to say that all young marriages are better, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each.
A related problem is our culture’s utter foolishness in considering teens “children.” I’m sorry, but a 16 year old girl isn’t a child anymore. The problems we’re having with
teen sexting and resulting “child pornography” charges reflect the absurdity of our standards. We wonder why adolescence extends indefinitely now, but we’re telling our teens, who are biologically adults, that they’re children. All the while, they learn not to function as adults but as those with some adult freedoms but no adult responsibilities. This extension of childhood and adolescence needs to be challenged within the Evangelical world, which because of its abstinence stance has boxed itself in and therefore has to take a leadership role on the matter. American culture needs to face the facts: 16 year old “kids” are young adults, not children, and they should be treated as such.
If this problem, and I think it’s a substantial one, is to be addressed in the Evangelical world, several things must be done. First of all, the contradictions mentioned above need to be brought further into the light from Evangelical pulpits—people need to understand the difference between their unconsciously-embraced cultural commitments and their theological commitments, and most importantly, where those commitments come into conflict.
Secondly, if there is a group today that, as far as I can tell, is having success in maintaining some consistency with respect to marriage and abstinence, it is the Mormons. Evangelicals need to swallow their pride and their distaste towards the Mormons and study how they have approached this issue. Part of the solution is that, quite frankly, the Mormons are generally more committed to their faith than the standard Evangelical. When an Evangelical teen finishes high school, he goes straight to college in the hopes of getting a solid job afterwards. When a Mormon finishes, he goes on a two year mission, putting college off until later, since the faith comes first (between 80 and 90% of 19 year old males whose families are active in the LDS church go on such a mission; try getting Evangelicals to agree to that sort of thing in those numbers—it wouldn’t happen).
As a result, Mormon students get to college as more mature and more thoroughly prepared individuals than the typical youth-group kid—they’ve already had two years away from home, in the real world, in a sort of forced responsibility while representing their faith against all comers. In addition, it is far from abnormal within the Mormon world for a couple to marry before or during college. After all, college was already put off two years anyway. And both the family and the church then help support the young couple financially, providing a safety net and sense of community for the burgeoning marriage at a point when the couple is at the bottom of its earning power.
In contrast, Evangelical families tend to take the perspective that once a couple is married, they’re largely on their own, responsible for their own finances—and the churches are generally too busy with their building drives and expensive projects to support these young and fragile couples. But if they want stronger churches in the future, it would be wise to redirect many of these resources to the support of faithful young couples who aren’t yet in a position to earn much.
In addition, a large part of the fear of early marriage involves early pregnancy, which would presumably “doom” the young couple to a life of poverty and ending the woman’s college career. First of all, with today’s contraceptive options (a number of my friends have managed to delay pregnancy quite successfully using a diaphragm and spermicide), this shouldn’t be much of an issue. Secondly, even if a pregnancy happens, the whole point is that the priorities need to change—support of of these young couples needs to take the front seat. Evangelical parents and churches should take responsibility for supporting the young family until they’re on their proverbial feet. Younger marriages are only feasible when the community—starting with the parents—convert their priorities away from vacations and retirement and towards supporting young couples.
Why is it so unthinkable for two 18 year olds to get married and then continue to receive financial support from their parents to live? Wouldn’t they have received the support anyway were they single? But it’s actually cheaper for them to live as a couple (aside from children on the scene, obviously). These priorities need to change (as does the concept that the 20s are somehow a time to travel the world and take vacations, but that’s another discussion altogether). Even the admittedly substantial expense of raising children is overstated in part because of our rapid expansion of the “American dream.” Look at reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Brady Bunch.” Kids shared rooms; “small” houses were the norm. Why is it so important all of a sudden to be able to afford a “large enough” dwelling or pay for expensive lessons and activities?
Thirdly, the conception of the college years needs to change, not only in the Evangelical world, but in America at large. As things stand today, college is an extension of adolescence—it is one last opportunity to truly be irresponsible most of the time while still gaining necessary qualifications for adult life in the future. College kids are known for their binge drinking and risky behavior, including all sorts of sexual encounters. (Evangelicals are aware of this and try to provide alternate activities for their college students—campus ministries and the like.) Parents often provide some support through college, while scholarships and student loans often provide the bulk of the students’ support. In return for this relatively carefree lifestyle, the average student is expected to spend 12–15 hours per week in class, with a few papers and exams at certain intervals.
It should come as no surprise that, as an instructor, my married students have typically been my steadiest and best students. They seem to find time that no other students have, and they’re usually on top of their work. Now, I ask, why do we regard the university years as somehow detached from the rest of adult life? Why isn’t school looked at as the equivalent of a job? Why is it so taboo for couples to marry while in college? Frankly, I think it’s probably better for many Evangelical students to go through college while married—they’d more than likely get higher grades and have fewer problems due to the lack of responsibility that comes with being single and having lots of free, unstructured time. Why can’t college be seen as the beginning of the work world, rather than a sort of liminal adolescence between being home and having to work? Why isn’t college seen and handled as a job? What’s the difference, other than income? A job pays in the present, while college (presumably) is undertaken in order to get paid more later.
But then how to pay for the wedding? Am I not aware that weddings cost around 20k these days? Again, why is it necessary to follow the culture on this? Why not simply have a small celebration; after all, it’s the covenant that matters, not the ceremony—at least if theology is to be taken seriously.
Finally, in order for there to be any consistency, the marriage relationship itself needs to be reframed back into biblical terms. That is, Christian marriage must be understood as a God-centered relationship, not a self-centered one. All the issues of how one’s partner isn’t what one expected in terms of satisfying “me” are irrelevant, along with any expectations of a standard “successful” life reflected by financial comfort and a big house. Rather, it becomes about finding someone with whom to share a sexual relationship and serve God together. That is remarkably simple, and reflects a practicality about the work involved in the relationship in order for it to survive. At that point, it simply becomes about finding a person who shares one’s values and sense of service while also being mutually sexually attractive. As my ever-practical father has said: Find a like-minded woman you actually enjoy spending time with; if you find her attractive, marry her. It’s a far cry from the “soul mate” mentality that has been pushed for so many years, and it works hand-in-glove with the call to commitment inherent in the Gospel.
Finally, marriage must be understood as a covenant—not just a contractual agreement, but a covenant that is the representation and vessel of God’s presence in the world. Paul repeatedly turns to marriage as the best illustration of God’s relationship with the assembly of his people. And marriage is seen as a mode of sanctification—not only for oneself but one’s children (1 Cor 7:14) and ultimately an avenue for grace to be extended to the world. After all, Jesus did not say that he would be present in large groups, but that he would be “in the midst of” two or three gathered in his name—effectively establishing the believing nuclear family as the basic unit of the Jesus-movement.
As a final note, I should add that my comments do have an additional experiential authority on this matter, as I am a 27-year-old virgin (for that matter, I have not yet experienced the joy of a kiss). I wish I were the norm (cf. 1 Cor 7:7), but even the apostle Paul thinks that out of the question. The fact that I have managed does not mean that everyone else should be expected to make it to their late 20s. It’s neither practical, nor realistic. Unfortunately, the Evangelical world has not recognized this, though there are some positive signs of change on the horizon in that respect, as the initial MSNBC article discusses.
The bottom line is that if Evangelicals are to continue to push abstinence-till-marriage as a biblical essential, they ultimately must embrace earlier marriage (and a different view of both college and marriage). Otherwise, the abstinence message is, in the words of Bristol Palin, “not realistic.”