The Case for Early Marriage: Regnerus on the Evangelical Dilemma

Categories: Sexuality & Family

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(Total Reading Time: 9 minutes; Bold parts: approximately one minute)

Back in August I posted a roadmap of my thoughts on what I termed “An Evangelical Dilemma” (if you haven’t read it, I’d suggest starting there), the unsustainable contradiction between Evangelicals’ embrace of abstinence until marriage and the cultural shift towards later marriage, arguing that if Evangelicals want to uphold abstinence, they have no choice but to encourage earlier marriage. In that piece, I argued that the simultaneous embrace of contradictory cultural and theological norms in the Evangelical world is damaging to its young people (and ultimately, its families), suggesting that the only realistic solution if abstinence is to be advocated is 1) a push towards earlier marriage supported both by the families of the young newly-married and the larger church body itself and 2) a change in perspective from an individualistic “soul-mate” view of marriage towards a covenantal, missional perspective of Christian marriage.

What I did not know at the time was that about a week earlier, University of Texas Sociologist Mark Regnerus had made a similar case in, “The Case for Early Marriage,” a lengthy piece in Christianity Today. (I have since found out that Regnerus has occasionally roomed at sociology conferences with a good friend of mine from here at UNC—small world.) Regnerus had also published a Washington Post op-ed on “The Freedom to Marry Young,” again advocating a shift towards younger marriages, in April of this year. Since then, the Austin American-Statesman also featured Regnerus in a profile piece and interview (“Don’t Wait to Get Married”) summarizing his work in this area, explaining the reasoning behind the op-ed and CT article:

I wrote the piece to commend marriage and ask religious communities and parents to reconsider the messages they’re sending to their young adult children,” he said. “It’s not a call for teen marriage. Instead, I wanted to push back against the new norm that says you must be crazy, or planning to forfeit your future and your fun, to consider marrying in your early 20s. Why can’t people in love get married when they want to? Why can’t they support each other and reach their goals together? [My emphasis]

Regnerus makes a case very similar to what I have argued: the abstinence movement is approaching things the wrong direction. Instead of intensifying the abstinence message, Regnerus argues that it would be better to encourage earlier and stronger marriages. Like my post, Regnerus expresses antipathy towards the “if you wait, sex will be great” message: “The abstinence industry perpetuates a blissful myth; too much is made of the explosively rewarding marital sex life awaiting abstainers. The fact is that God makes no promises of great sex to those who wait. Some experience difficult marriages. Spouses wander. Others cannot conceive children.” In Regnerus’ words (all quotes from the CT article unless otherwise noted, and bolded parts are my emphasis):

Indeed, over 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying. The percentage of evangelicals who do so is not much lower. In a nationally representative study of young adults, just under 80 percent of unmarried, church- going, conservative Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort. I’m certainly not suggesting that they cannot abstain. I’m suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don’t and won’t.

What to do? Intensify the abstinence message even more? No. It won’t work. The message must change, because our preoccupation with sex has unwittingly turned our attention away from the damage that Americans—including evangelicals—are doing to the institution of marriage by discouraging it and delaying it.

But after years of studying the sexual behavior and family decision-making of young Americans, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians have made much ado about sex but are becoming slow and lax about marriage—that more significant, enduring witness to Christ’s sacrificial love for his bride. Americans are taking flight from marriage. We are marrying later, if at all, and having fewer children.

What has caused this “Evangelical dilemma”?

The answer is pretty straightforward: While our sexual ideals have remained biblical and thus rooted in marriage, our ideas about marriage have changed significantly. For all the heated talk and contested referendums about defending marriage against attempts to legally redefine it, the church has already ceded plenty of intellectual ground in its marriage-mindedness. Christian practical ethics about marriage—not the ones expounded on in books, but the ones we actually exhibit—have become a nebulous hodgepodge of pragmatic norms and romantic imperatives, few of which resemble anything biblical.

Unfortunately, many Christians cannot tell the difference. Much about evangelical marital ethics is at bottom therapeutic: since we are pro-family, we are sure that a happy marriage is a central source of human contentment, and that romantic love is the key gauge of its health. While our marriage covenants are strengthened by romance, the latter has no particular loyalty to the former.


UT-Austin Professor Mark Regnerus
UT-Austin Professor Mark Regnerus

Our personal feelings may lead us out of a marriage as quickly as they lead us into one. As a result, many of us think about marriage much like those outside the church—as a capstone that completes the life of the autonomous self. We claim to be better promise keepers, but our vision of what marriage means is not all that unique.

… we advise our children to finish their education, to launch their careers, and to become financially independent, since dependence is weakness. “Don’t rush into a relationship,” we caution them. “Hold out for a spouse who displays real godliness.” “First loves aren’t likely the best fit.” “You have plenty of time!” we now remind them. “Don’t bank on a mate.” Even those who successfully married young now find themselves dispensing such parental wisdom with little forethought.

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. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we’ve created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But it must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient.

Early in the article, Regnerus also points to something I neglected in my piece: in Evangelical churches, there are approximately three single women for every two men, meaning the situation is significantly more dire for women who desire marriage but also want (as they are so often admonished within the church) to be “equally yoked” (i.e. marry another Evangelical). He deals with several common objections to early marriage in the second half of the article. His observations about the argument stemming from economic security are very nearly the same as mine (recall that my argument rested on the responsibility of the families and the church to aid young couples financially through their early years):

Marrying young can spell poverty, at least temporarily. Yet the mentality that we need to shield young adults from the usual struggles of life by encouraging them to delay marriage until they are financially secure usually rests on an unrealistic standard of living. Good marriages grow through struggles, including economic ones. My wife and I are still fiscal conservatives because of our early days of austerity.

… marriage is an unbelievably efficient arrangement and the best wealth-creating institution there is. Married people earn more, save more and build more wealth compared with people who are single or cohabiting. (Say what you will about the benefits of cohabitation, it’s a categorically less stable arrangement, far more prone to division than marriage.) … Marriage may not make you rich — that’s not its purpose — but a biblical proverb reveals this nifty side effect: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” [Quote from the Washington Post op-ed]

Nevertheless, the economic domain remains an area in which many parents are often able, but frequently unwilling, to assist their children. Many well-meaning parents use their resources as a threat, implying that if their children marry before the age at which their parents socially approve, they are on their own. No more car insurance. No help with tuition. No more rent.

This doesn’t sound very compassionate toward marriage—or toward family members. This is, however, a two-way street: many young adults consider it immature or humiliating to rely on others for financial or even social support. They would rather deal with sexual guilt—if they sense any at all—than consider marrying before they think they are ready. This cultural predilection toward punishing rather than blessing marriage must go,and congregations and churchgoers can help by dropping their own punitive positions toward family members, as well as by identifying deserving young couples who could use a little extra help once in a while. Christians are great about supporting their missionaries, but in this matter, we can be missionaries to the marriages in our midst.

On the protests that younger people are less mature and “ready” for marriage, Regnerus observes:

While unlearning self-centeredness and acquiring a sacrificial side aren’t easy at any age, naïveté may actually benefit youth, since preferences and habits ingrained over years of single life often are not set aside easily. Let’s face it: Young adults are inexperienced, but they are not intrinsically incompetent at marriage. So they need, of course, the frank guidance of parents, mentors, and Christian couples.

This plugs right into my complaint that those who so often argue that people shouldn’t marry until “their personalities are fully formed” at around 25 are unwittingly arguing that people should wait to marry until they’ve become less flexible and more stubborn. Younger marriages have the advantage of the two people “growing into each other” or “growing up together,” while older people have more old habits and more years of selfishness to break down. Why is it better to enter marriage “fully formed” instead of “forming together”? I also very much appreciate Regnerus’ observations about the absurdity (and fiscal travesty) that is the modern American wedding:

Marriage becomes equated with beautiful, successful people. Weddings become expensive displays of personal and family status.

Such is the pressure cooker of modern weddings. None of this is good. Marriage is too important and too serious to be treated as yet another game to play, with winners and losers. It’s a covenant of mutual submission and sacrificial love, not a contest of prestige, social norms, and saving face. A trend toward more modest weddings would be a great start.

In his discussion of several other protests against early marriage, two common themes emerge. Again, Regnerus’ case is nearly identical with what I argued in August: if Evangelicals are to approach marriage with any sort of consistency, it must be seen 1) as a covenant and 2) as the most essential representation and vessel of God’s presence in the world, not as some sort of personal enrichment:

But what really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I’ve met 18-year-olds who can handle it and 45-year-olds who can’t. [Quote from the Washington Post op-ed]

In other words, our freedom to serve as singles or our submission as married people is never intended to be about us. It’s about God.

Weddings may be beautiful, but marriages become beautiful. Personal storytelling and testimonies can work wonders here, since so much about life is learned behavior. Young adults want to know that it’s possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding them did it.

Abstinence is not to blame for our marital crisis. But promoting it has come at a cost in a permissive world in which we are increasingly postponing marriage. While I am no fan of the demographic realities I outlined earlier, one thing I will remember is that while sex matters, marriage matters more. The importance of Christian marriage as a symbol of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people—and a witness to the future union of Christ and his bride—will only grow in significance as the wider Western culture diminishes both the meaning and actual practice of marriage. Marriage itself will become a witness to the gospel.

Such are the impulses of many young Christians in love. In an environment where parents and peers are encouraging them to delay thoughts of marriage, I’m not surprised that their sexuality remains difficult to suppress and the source of considerable angst. We would do well to recognize some of these relationships for what they are: marriages in the making. If a young couple displays maturity, faith, fidelity, a commitment to understanding marriage as a covenant, and a sense of realism about marriage, then it’s our duty—indeed, our pleasure—to help them expedite the part of marriage that involves public recognition and celebration of what God is already knitting together. We ought to “rejoice and delight” in them, and praise their love (Song of Sol. 1:4).

Regnerus is, as mentioned above, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin, focusing on the sociology of religion. He is the author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, a book on the impact of religion on American teens’ sexual decisions.

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • My thinking exactly. Our society CRIMINALIZES and Churches condemn the biological clock in favor of some destructive caution. When you get older and set in your ways, romance is eclipsed by weariness. “Get ’em while they’re hot!”

  • It would make sense for people to grow together rather than enter marriage at a more formed stage, IF it was difficult to get divorced and there was strong familial, social, and church pressure to stay married no matter what. Since this pressure and support is often lacking, it puts couples in an insecure place if they marry young and then their immaturity/incompatibility, etc. makes their marriage hard. In the past, people would work through most any marital problem, or at least learn to live with it. But with easy divorce, it becomes all the more important to make a really wise and mature choice of marriage partner–something most people do a better job of if they are a bit older and more experienced.

    • While I understand your argument, as Regnerus’ article points out, the best data for divorce rates “suggest that marriages that commence in the early 20s are not as risky—especially for women—as conventional wisdom claims.” Sure, there are online resources that claim to report divorce rates, but not all of these are based on the best data. I would also contest the notion that “most people do a better job of [picking a good mate] if they are a bit older and more experienced.” I am curious what you mean by “more experienced,” anyway; keep in mind that my article (and Regnerus’ piece) is advocating earlier marriage for those who choose to have zero sexual experience going into marriage regardless of their age.

      At any rate, I think marriage tends to be the sort of thing for which people can’t really be completely prepared beforehand. Newly married couples in their late 20s are, in my observation, generally as clueless as those in their early twenties; the marriage simply needs time to mature and develop either way. In addition, one of the comments most frequently made by those who have been married quite a while is that regardless of how compatible the couple is when they get married, things change once marriage happens. The partner you thought you were marrying isn’t the same person you’re married to four or five years into marriage. This is where I agree with you about the problems inherent in our easy-divorce culture—the biggest problem is that people aren’t trained (and expected) to work through the hard parts of marriage and work for compatibility. Instead, they’re told to find someone compatible and marry that person—as though that will mean the marriage will be easy. The more important thing is to transition the thinking of our young people to help them be aware that this kind of “compatibility” is something that requires a great deal of work during the marriage and get them to think about the work involved in marriage. If they enter marriage with this knowledge—and a commitment to stick to it—getting married at a younger age isn’t a problem in the least.

  • This is so very interesting. I just found myself trying to justify my “early marriage” yesterday to some woman at Target. There is so much shock when people hear that we’ll be going on our 8 year anniversary this July, that we married while in college, and my gut-reaction is to justify it, affirming the “you’re crazy” reaction of others. The truth is, it was right for us. And it’s been nothing but good. We got 4+ years of having fun, traveling and apartment-living before the responsibility of kids kicked in. It’s been good, and I should stop apologizing. Thanks for this.

    • No question—it was right for you, and you have no reason to feel defensive or apologetic for it. You and Neal are a wonderful example of just how this sort of thing can work and why it should be more encouraged within Christian circles. Thank you for being a good example I can point to!

  • […] Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenager and a few excellent articles on early marriage (which I blogged about here). Well, Regnerus is at it again, this time in Slate, with an article explaining “sexual […]

  • Wow, this is exactly what I needed to hear (read). I have three sons, one young adult and one who will be very soon. Over the past couple of years, I have been struggling with my belief that they should marry young instead of “testing the waters” with many partners. When I express this to others, they look at me like I’m crazy for having this mentality. These were all very good points to consider by those who want to marry young as well as parents like me who want to support their children while helping lead them into making right choices. Ultimately, marriage is for God and if my sons’ heart and understanding is in the right place, I will support them with God’s guidance and favor. Thank you!

  • Here, Here! Excellent article. I know it’s been out for a bit but it is still needed and good.


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