They've done it. Christianity Today has opened a compelling discussion with their August cover story. When you pick up the magazine, you see a young, married couple riding down the road on their bicycle, accompanied by the headline, "The Case for Early Marriage: Settling Down Sooner Than Later Has Never Made More Sense. Here's Why." That is what I call a hook.
The title alone is enough to draw the reader's attention. The man fueling the conversation is Dr. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, who published his book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, back in 2007. His CT article has been much discussed, and it is a worthwhile read. Regnerus was published on the same topic back in April in the Washington Post (an op-ed which Regnerus reports was negatively received). Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote about the CT article here. The AP's Eric Gorski has written a recap that has been picked up by a number of major media outlets, including The Chicago Tribune.
Regnerus begins by recounting the problem with current evangelical and Christian discourse on marriage. There is none. We do not explain our theology of marriage. We do not encourage marriage. In fact, we delay marriage. We put it off. And therein he finds the problem. Any discourse we have had on marriage, according to Regnerus, has been far overshadowed by our obsession with proclaiming abstinence. Regnerus believes that the abstinence message is important and critical for Christian proclamation. But as a sociologist, Regnerus has found that over 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying, and 80 percent of unmarried, churchgoing, conservative Protestants who are currently dating are having sex of some sort. He believes intensifying the abstinence message won't work. Instead, we need to encourage people to get married.
From here, Regnerus reviews the standard sociological data. Marriage is being delayed, despite its benefits for child rearing, wage-earning, and longevity of relationships. Marriage is under extreme duress, noting that fewer than half of American households today are made up of married couples. Average age at which people are married is up, even among evangelicals. And all of this waiting creates a sexually stressed environment for adolescents and young adults. Regnerus has reviewed that data and finds it undeniable that we are "battling our Creator's reproductive designs." He wants people to get hitched. And he knows that the current demographics in the evangelical world make this tough, as there are far more women committed to the faith than there are young men. This leads Regnerus to observe that men, therefore, can be more patient in marrying. If they are Christian, they can take their pick of leading ladies. The ideal woman will come along, and while these men wait around, they delay growing up. Regnerus notes that sociological data reflects that workplace performance for men 25-34 years-old has fallen 20 percent since 1971, partly as a reflection of prolonging adolescence. I know enough guys addicted to video games to intuitively know this is right.
Regnerus confronts objections to early marriage head on, including: (1) economic insecurity; (2) immaturity; (3) a poor match; (4) marrying for sex; and (5) unrealistic expectations. You'll have to read his argument to find out how he responds to these challenges. Regnerus believes each of these objections can be met, and that marriage itself can be reclaimed by Christian people as a formative institution, rather than as an institution one enters when they are already fully formed. Regnerus believes that marriage itself has important theological significance for Christian witness, and thus is a place wherein men and women can tell of the depth of God's covenantal faithfulness to his people. This theological witness has important significance in a culture where the meaning of marriage is being lost.
With Regnerus, I have had suspicions that marriage has somehow been lost within Christian discourse. When I do hear it spoken of, it is often captured in terms of the myths of romanticism that dominate our culture. We speak of "falling in love," and that is followed by a quick movement toward tying the knot. Marriage is then affirmed as an agreement between two autonomous individuals to support one another while remaining autonomous individuals. Even when we speak of covenant and lifelong commitment, it seems that the type of commitment that is being made has more to do with the two individuals than the witness and life of the church. In other words, our discourse on marriage has little to do with our unique politics as the church. And it is that type of discourse that I believe Regnerus hints toward, but does not explore fully. And it is that type of discourse, how marriage fits into our polity as God's people that I believe must be addressed.
Read the article. Reflect on it. And if you see people who are committed, moral, mature, and who display faith and fidelity, encourage them to get hitched.