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 such that present averages of first marriage are over 27 and 25 for men and women, respectively. I have been observing this phenomenon with some interest of late, watching as Bristol Palin, for example, 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, 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 sensual or sexual. Far too many Evangelicals want to pretend marriage isn’t about sex in the first place. It’s shocking, really, because it’s such a distortion of the biblical text Evangelicals ostensibly value so highly. 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 discussed in this New Yorker article) 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, although I think the “blue state” sexual ethic addressed in the New Yorker discussion is unsustainable and ends up being harmful to those holding that view in the long run—particularly harmful to women), the blue state ethic is at least consistent and realistic inasmuch as it recognizes the power of basic human drives—drives 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 in accord with 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 points out, marriage in American society has come to be about personal enrichment, about “what the relationship can do for you as an individual.” 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, Evangelical culture has pushed the “eHarmony philosophy,” that is, “the belief God will deliver someone perfect.” Perfect, one should 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. Moreover, these teens are told 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 subsequent “blessed life” as they had expected. Even worse, 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—that is, for “personal enrichment,” for effectively self-centered reasons. And aside from some corners of the Evangelical world that push “courting” (“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 guarantee that 9 out of 10 would respond, “after college,” in keeping with the notion that life has a proper order: finish high school, go to college, meet one’s mate (if one hasn’t already), finish college (and maybe a Master’s), get married.
Many Evangelicals who do finish college without marriage on the horizon fall off the abstinence wagon sometime soon after that, as disenchanted with the violation of expectations as their peers who married, and by this point having a starved sexual appetite, ready to try the sexual experiences they heard about (and witnessed) all through college.
But why is finishing college somehow the barrier that means a person is “ready for marriage?” (Of course, no one is ever completely ready for marriage anyway). The answer is that it became a norm because it ties directly to financial status—the same thing now pushing the average marriage age closer to 30 in the wider population. People are told they shouldn’t marry “until they’re financially secure.”
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 Evangelicals supposedly embrace. 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.
Equally problematic is the oft-referenced notion that people aren’t entirely developed as adults until 25 and thus shouldn’t marry before then. 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 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 not only within the Evangelical world but also wider American culture. We need to face the facts: 16 year old “kids” are young adults, not children, and they should be treated as such. But because the Evangelical world has boxed itself in with its abstinence stance, Evangelicals have little choice but to reconsider the matter.
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 leaders—people need to understand the differences between their explicit theological commitments and their unconsciously-embraced cultural commitments—and 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 abstinence and marriage, it is the Latter-Day Saints. Evangelicals need to swallow their pride and their distaste towards Mormons and study how they have approached this issue.
Part of the solution is that, quite frankly, the average Mormon is generally more committed to his/her faith than the standard Evangelical. When a typical middle-class Evangelical teen finishes high school, she goes straight to college in the hopes of getting a solid job afterwards. When a typical 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 thoroughly prepared individuals than the typical youth-group Evangelical. 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. It is also far from abnormal for a Mormon couple to marry before or during college. After all, college was already put off two years anyway. Even more importantly, both the family and the church 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 do exactly the opposite, often declaring that once a couple is married, they’re on their own, responsible for their own finances. For their part, Evangelical 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.
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, pregnancy is by no means inevitable upon marriage. Secondly, even if a pregnancy does occur, 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 20 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 had they remained single? But in the absence of children (obviously), it’s actually cheaper for them to live as a couple. 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? These priorities need to change, as does the concept that one’s 20s are somehow a time to travel the world and take vacations, but that’s another discussion altogether.
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 of course 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 (though that would typically be revoked upon marriage), while scholarships and student loans frequently account for 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 therefore 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 the average wedding costs 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. That is, Christian marriage must be understood as a God-centered relationship, not a self-centered one. Rather than fixating on finding a partner who satisfies “me” in the pursuit of a standard “successful” life reflected by financial comfort and a big house, Christian marriage should be framed as finding someone with whom to serve God while sharing a sexual relationship and potentially a family.
Such a perspective is remarkably simple, and reflects a practicality about the work involved in a marriage 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 for years: 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 representation and vessel of God’s presence in the world. In keeping with prior Jewish tradition, Paul repeatedly turns to marriage as the best illustration of God’s relationship with his people. And marriage is seen as a mode of sanctification—not only for oneself but one’s children (1 Cor 7:14) and as 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 to be unrealistic. 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: 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.”