If you follow a certain road away from the city center, it will cross the river and lead you to the surrounding mountains. As it rises and falls with the contours of the land, it will pass cow pastures, dilapidated barns, and neat ranch houses built on family land where generations live side-by-side. Near the end of the road you’ll come to a small, brick church that just last year celebrated its 90th anniversary. The congregation is made of folks who have known each other their entire lives. They have attended school together, married together, reared children together, and even today, worship together. The oldest member was also the first to be married at the church back in 1947. Another couple recently celebrated 50 years together — she agreed to marry him one month to the day after he landed a full-time job — and yet another member could tell you about being a bride at 16.
Given the state of modern marriage, stories like these seem quaint and compelling if only because of their novelty. They recall a time when marriage, sex, and children ostensibly came as a package. Today, the grandchildren of these same couples — the grandchildren who turn up at the 50th and 60th anniversary parties with their live-in partners — face a very different sexual landscape. They live in a world where marriage is occurring later even as sexual activity and parenthood are happening earlier. Given current trends, it’s unlikely that they will enjoy “golden” wedding anniversaries of their own.
The Church has long wrestled with the best way to promote Christian sexual ethics in the face of conflicting cultural mores. In response to the sexual revolution, evangelicals adopted a “touch not, taste not, handle not” approach. But in subsequent years, this paradigm’s weaknesses have become increasingly obvious. Realizing that it is not enough to simply cordon off sex, some churches have now turned to promoting early marriage as a means of pursuing virtue. They reason that if it is natural for young adults to want to have sex, the simplest solution is to encourage them to marry earlier thereby giving them a legitimate context for their desire.
But as Alastair Roberts notes in writing about the growing acceptance of gay marriage among millennial Christians, the current sexual landscape is not simply a rejection of marriage as our grandparents understood it. Instead, it is a larger shift in how we understand the very nature of sex. Because of this, promoting early marriage will not necessarily solve the problem of sexual sin facing this generation because it does not address the underlying issue.
When Scripture upholds marriage as a preventative for sexual temptation, it does so within the context of a larger discussion about the place of both marriage and singleness in the Kingdom. It is addressing people who are already fighting sexual temptation, their relationship status notwithstanding. But given the current context, can we safely assume that young adults in our pews are doing this? And if they aren’t, is it wise to suggest marriage as a solution?
If a person is already transgressing the bounds of Christian teaching in their singleness, marriage (early or otherwise) will not fix it. It will simply establish a different set of boundaries to transgress with the added collateral of a spouse and future children. The man using porn in his singleness, who believes marriage will “solve” his issue by providing him a legitimate outlet for his passion, will find himself reverting to his old habits as soon as his wife is unavailable. The single woman who sleeps around to fill her emotional needs will end up in the arms of another when her husband works long hours, seems distant, or marriage reveals itself to be less than the epic romance she expected.
The risk of promoting early marriage as a way to combat sexual sin is that fewer and fewer of us understand the nature and purposes of marriage (and sex) in the first place. Too often the Church has simply co-opted the prevailing sexual ethic, responding to the culture instead of leading it. When the world promised good sex outside of marriage, we promised better sex to those who wait for marriage. When the world said that the timing of marriage is essential to a successful life (i.e., wait until you are ready to settle down), we said the same thing only in reverse (i.e., your happiness depends on marrying young). But in neither case have we actually changed the conversation. In neither case have we directed it away from our culture’s obsession with sex and articulated a fuller, uniquely Christian vision of marriage.
In order to navigate the surrounding culture, evangelicals must first understand what marriage is and what it is not. Writing for The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior argues for marriage as a cornerstone of a life formed together, a union she believes can be entered at a young age. But make no mistake, forming such a life together includes much, much more than sex and we must not enter it to appease sexual guilt or satisfy passion. Rather, it is a life formed out of larger common goals which are then pursued through shared values. And ultimately, it is a life safe-guarded, not simply by the timing of the marriage, but by the grace of God, the support of surrounding community, and the spiritual maturity of those entering it.